When Cardi B visits her favorite nail salon in the Bronx, she enters through a raggedy hallway covered with a rug emblazoned with the image of a $100 bill. The salon, which overlooks a bustling avenue of pizza shops, sports-gear superstores, and boutiques with weaves in 70 colors, is a temple to money, excess, and sexiness, symbolized in the application of nails that look like diamond-encrusted Buck knives. Portraits of two icons of pulchritude hang on the walls—namely, Marilyn Monroe and the very 2019 version of Marilyn: Cardi.
With a posse that includes her dad, her half-sister, her half-brother, and two Drogosize bodyguards whose names I don’t catch but imagine to be Bulwark and Spear, Cardi, 26, heads toward a private side room. She surrenders her hands and feet to Jenny Bui, her sharp-tongued nail tech of more than half a decade, even back when she didn’t have the money to move out of this borough.
…Leaving aside the fake nails and boob implants, with Cardi the artifice is in the artwork. In the space of less than a year, her music, videos, and fashion have made her a star of Lady Gaga proportions. She releases hit after hit; following last summer’s “I Like It,” the first Latin trap song to rise to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, with “Money,” a song, unsurprisingly, about money. In the video, she wears gorgeous clothes (she’s got “10 different looks and my looks all kill,” she raps), including outfits referencing Thierry Mugler, a gold bikini inspired by 1990s Lil’ Kim’s, and a custom Christian Cowan bodysuit fabricated from dozens of actual watches. She’s a post-Kardashian American superstar, a master of selfies, belfies, late-night Instagram videos, and all other manner of self-promotion— and also a creative genius. In 2019, no one needs to pick.
Raised in the Bronx, Cardi was the naturally rebellious daughter of a Trinidadian-born cashier mother and a Dominican Republic–born cabdriver father. Her mother was strict. Nevertheless she joined the notorious Bloods gang, moved out of her mother’s home and in with a boyfriend and, finding herself broke, took a job as a cashier at a grocery store. To build a nest egg, she became a stripper. To build a bigger nest egg, she became a hot girl on social media. In 2015, she was cast as a lovable loudmouth on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip Hop: New York, then began releasing her own mixtapes. Her debut single, “Bodak Yellow,” went to the top of the charts, and it took her only one album to achieve escape velocity: Invasion of Privacy, arguably the best debut album from a female rapper since Lil’ Kim’s 1996 Hard Core.