The charismatic hustle of Cardi B

Cardi B is working hard and telling everyone. It’s a sneakily radical move.

Cardi B is up for two awards at this weekend’s Grammys — Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance — but in a way, it doesn’t matter whether she wins the awards. As the woman herself pointed out on The Tonight Show, she’s already won.

Cardi’s meteoric rise has been well-documented: Over the course of six years, she went from struggling college student to grocery store cashier to stripper to hostess to Instagram star to reality star to the first female solo rapper to have a No. 1 song since Lauryn Hill in 1998. Now, at 25, she’s a Grammy-nominated superstar, and she’s just getting started.

Cardi hasn’t been shy about how she got where she is: She works hard. “A lot of people think I’m just a dumbass, like, hoe-ass bitch because I can’t talk English properly and it’s just, like, yo if I was dumb, I would not be in the position that I’m in,” she told Fader in 2016. “It’s just like damn everybody wanna be famous but, like, people don’t realize being famous don’t make you like rich. Like, yo you really gotta work to get rich.”

Cardi has never hidden how much she works, and that fact is fundamental to her appeal. While much of pop revolves around a fantasy of effortless, flaw-free perfection, Cardi is upfront about how much labor it requires to be Cardi B: the plastic surgery, the physical discomfort of the elaborate outfits, the careful study of her genre, the songs that are engineered to follow what sells and become hits, the years of nose-to-the-grindstone hustling.

“Everything I do, I take seriously,” she told Vibe in 2016. “Everything, everything, everything. Everything I do takes me time.”

What makes the fantasy of Cardi B so successful is its transparency about how much work it takes to become a fantasy. And what makes it so unusual is that Cardi is able to be a woman in the music industry, to be open about how much labor it takes to be a woman in the music industry — and still be wildly successful.

Cardi’s most famous lines tend to be about working

Cardi became famous on Instagram, and her first viral Instagram video, posted in 2014, is instructive. It shows her twirling through a hotel hallway in a barely-there top, promoting an upcoming club appearance:

House of LANCASTER

A post shared by Cardi B Official IG (@iamcardib) on

“Canada, it’s cold outside, but I’m still looking like a thotty,” she says, preening, “because a hoe never gets cold.”

“A hoe never gets cold” instantly became an iconic and memeable line to everyone from Reddit to fashion bloggers — but it also fundamentally captures the Cardi ethos. Doing club appearances is work. It means wearing practically nothing in Canada in November. It means getting plastic surgery. (“I gotta go buy me an ass,” Cardi thought when she became a stripper, as she recalled to the Breakfast Club in 2015.) It isn’t just partying; it’s labor. “I was never the type to go out,” Cardi told Vibe in 2016. “I just always used to work. My job is the strip club. Even though people see it as a party to them, it wasn’t a party to me.”

So why does she do it? Very simply, because it’s good money.

That was the punchline of another of her viral Instagram videos. “People be asking me like, ‘What do you does? Are you like a comedian or something?’” she says, flipping her hair back dismissively. “Nah. I ain’t none of that. I’m a hoe. I’m stripper hoe. I’m about this shmoney.”

Cardi’s thing is doing the work and getting paid for it, and she made that abundantly clear during her turn on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip Hop in 2015. There, her primary storyline involved radio personality DJ Self, whom Cardi presented as her business partner and side piece. (Her real boyfriend was in jail.) But then: drama. Self was seeing other women and lying about it. Cardi was furious. Wig snatching and catfighting ensued.

The issue wasn’t, she explained in testimonials, that she was jealous. This was strictly a business problem. “Me and Self host together, we do gigs together,” she explained to the camera. “And it’s just like, ‘You lying is gonna mess up our business,’ and whatnot. And one thing about me: When you put my shmoney in jeopardy, now we got a problem.”

Putting the shmoney in jeopardy is an unforgivable sin in Cardi world: It’s her money, and she worked hard for it. Likewise, earning money is an act to be valorized and celebrated. “I don’t dance now, I make money moves,” goes the hook of “Bodak Yellow.” Cardi does her moves and gets her money.

She straightforwardly acknowledges that she works hard at her music, and that she does it to get paid: “I have a passion for music, I love music,” she told Fader in 2017. “But I also have a passion for money and paying my bills.”

So she does her homework and studies hard. “It took me like a year to complete the mixtape [Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1],” she told Vibe in 2016. “Everything I do, it takes a lot of time for me to do it because only the best sells, you know? If you want people to take you seriously, you gotta do the best.”

But she also refuses to get precious about her muse or her artistry: She’s trying to make a living here, and that means that she’s chasing hits. “You gotta follow the trends, it is what it is,” she told Fader in 2017. “At the end of the day, you need to be with what sells. Sometimes it kinda crushes me because I wanna do music like how I like, but if it’s not selling and it’s not gonna work, then I’ll change my sound.”

In pop culture, women’s labor tends to be either glamorous or effaced

Cardi’s get-that-money ethos is a familiar one in hip-hop, where hustling is often valorized — at least for men. But it can still be difficult for women to access that kind of machismo without being criticized for it, making Cardi’s image all the more singular. When she won “Hustler of the Year” at the BET Awards last fall, she was the first woman ever to win the award, which has been around since 2006. (Previously, it had only ever gone to Jay Z, Diddy, Dr. Dre, and DJ Khaled.)

And since “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi has become a crossover hit, exploding into the realm of pop music, where the acceptable scripts for women are limited. In the world of popular music, it’s still rare and raw and scary for women to straightforwardly say that they work hard to create a fantasy image, and that they do that work because they want to get paid. It’s rarer still for them to make that labor fundamental to their image.

Everyone knows that Beyoncé works hard, but part of the fantasy she sells is effortless perfection. (“I woke up like this / Flawless.”) When she reveals her labor — on social media, or in her documentary — it feels artistic rather than mercenary, and glamorous rather than seedy. The resulting image “is equal parts sweat, control, and endurance,” as Anne Helen Petersen wrote for the Baffler in 2014. “This image does not take away from the mystique of Beyoncé, it adds to it: we like her more, not less, because of the supposed transparency: Girl works hard to be the Queen.”

On reality TV and social media, too, the labor that goes into creating an image is either effaced or glamorized. The labor of beauty can be Insta-friendly when it’s putting on a sheet mask and a silk dressing gown in flattering lighting; it can be good reality TV when it’s trying on elaborate dresses for a fancy event. But neither medium is willing to, for instance, spend time celebrating the act of sculpting a body with surgery for a specific industry — that would be déclassé. On the contrary, Keeping Up With the Kardashians has devoted multiple episodes to insisting that Kim Kardashian West does not have butt implants and does not use Botox.

In contrast, the labor that goes into Cardi’s beauty and Cardi’s music is neither glamorous nor effaced nor insistent on its own purity. It’s work, it’s hard, sometimes it’s unpleasant, but she’s willing to sweat it out for the money. “This is my work ethic,” she told Billboard in December: “I do not want to raise my future kids where I was raised, and I know the only way to do it is working, working, working, working, working.”

And the fact that Cardi is so insistent on working, working, working is fundamental to her appeal. When you watch her work, you’re watching a hustler in action — and, as Cardi will be the first to tell you, it’s a little inspiring.

“We all work hard, but in our different ways and in our different fields,” she says. “Who’s to say that I can’t inspire a woman who works at a Fortune 500 company as much as she inspires me?”