Only Cardi B has the right to doubt Cardi B. Her well-documented rise to superstardom is the product of grit, hustle, and the unapologetic nerve to just be herself. Her debut album, 2018’s Invasion of Privacy, was the result of talent that can’t be denied; an instant silencer of skeptics who believed her historic hit, “Bodak Yellow,” was a fluke. And her chart-topping single last summer, “WAP,” was proof that, at the age of 28, the Bronx native doesn’t just get the culture—she sets the culture. The woman born Belcalis Almánzar to Trinidadian and Dominican parents, who was a stripper by the age of 18 and a reality star by the time she was 23, has, in her short career, won a Grammy, broken five Guinness World Records, and sat down with a future president. And yet, as she puts the finishing touches on her highly anticipated sophomore album, the self-described “strip-club Mariah Carey” still needs a little pep talk. So we put her in touch with the real one. —BEN BARNA
MARIAH CAREY: Hi, darling.
CARDI B: Oh my gosh. I’m freaking out.
CAREY: Oh, stop. How are you?
CARDI B: I’m okay. Dealing with being locked down.
CAREY: What’s an average day like for Cardi B?
CARDI B: During the pandemic, the average day is me waking up with a lot of ideas in my head, so I’m always calling my team, trying to make whatever I have in my head happen, or I’m wondering about a business venture so I call my lawyer. And sometimes I go on Twitter, I go to blogs, I see what’s going on in the world. I try to stay off it most of the time, because sometimes it’s such a bad vibe. I usually wake up around noon and my daughter wakes up at 3:00 p.m., so I really have no time to just work, work, work, work.
CAREY: Do you have a glam team with you, or do you do it yourself? What’s been your way of preserving the Cardi B look while making sure everybody around you is safe?
CARDI B: Due to COVID, no lie, my team gets tested at least three or four times a week, no matter what we do. We always come up with things together. Let’s say I want to wear a shirt: I’ll send the shirt to my stylist and he will put an outfit together. Then I’ll hit up my hairstylist and we’ll decide what hairstyle goes with the fashion, because we don’t always have the same ideas. I was rehearsing for a music video and I had to be around dancers, and we were getting tested practically every single day. It’s so expensive on the budget.
CAREY: What do you think is your most down-to-earth trait?
CARDI B: I can vibe with anybody. I know hood chicks, I know college girls. I can relate to any type of vibe.
CAREY: I was able to write my memoir and got to tell my story from the time when I was a little girl, and that was the most important thing to me, because nobody knew that little girl. It was only once I became a well-known recording artist that people knew me and treated me differently, but I had an interesting, dysfunctional childhood. I was wondering, did you feel beautiful as a little girl?
CARDI B: It really depends.
CAREY: I know that I didn’t, for my own reasons. When you were little, did you always know, “I stand out from the crowd. Different people notice me, I feel beautiful”? Or did you feel like an outsider?
CARDI B: Well, I’m from New York, right? And New York is a melting pot, especially where I grew up in the Bronx. I’m Trini and I’m Dominican, and there’s a lot of Dominicans that look a certain type of way. They have soft, pretty, curly hair. Growing up, guys would ask me weird questions like, “If you’re Dominican, why is your hair so nappy?” I used to dye my hair, and people used to be like, “Oh, your hair’s so crunchy.” And it would make me feel so weird. I was also really skinny when I was younger, and in the Bronx, it’s about being thick and having an ass, so young boys would be like, “Look at your flat ass. You ain’t got no titties.” And it would make me feel so ugly and undeveloped.
CAREY: I’ve had very similar situations, with the hair. The hair is always a thing. As a matter of fact, we’re about to deal with my hair right now, because it looks quite disgusting. Now, you have access to every great hairdresser in the world, to makeup artists and stylists, the whole glam team and designers. You’re like a real-life princess. Coming from the childhood that you came from, and the experiences that you just talked me through, does it feel like, “Wow, I hope those same people who told me I had a flat ass and nappy hair are looking at this now”? Do you feel vindicated?
CARDI B: I feel so vindicated. Even when I was 18 and became a dancer, I had enough money to afford to buy boobs, so every insecurity that I felt about my breasts was gone. When I was 20, I went to the urban strip club, and in the urban strip clubs, you had to have a big butt. So I felt insecure about that. It took me back to high school. So I got my ass done. And then I felt super confident. When I was younger, I didn’t really know how to take care of my hair. So now I make my own hair mask and take care of my natural hair, and it makes me feel better, like what people were saying about me isn’t true. My hair was not bad because it was nappy. My hair was bad because I didn’t know how to take care of it.
CAREY: Did you have someone in your life, like a parental figure or a sister, to help you figure out your hair? It was a very traumatizing thing for me having a black father and a white mother, because my mother, who raised me, didn’t really know about textured hair. So I think we’re kind of saying the same thing. Who taught you to do hair masks?
CARDI B: When I got older, I started mixing formulas myself, because my mom is really old school. She thought, “If I give her five ponytails with braids, that’s how her hair will grow.” But I didn’t want five ponytails. I wanted to go to school with a bun. I started bleaching my hair when I was very young, and from there on, I damaged it because I also permed it. But as you get older, you learn how to take care of yourself better, with everything.
CAREY: You probably want to talk about your new album and we can get into that. How are you feeling about it?
CARDI B: I feel like I’m missing some songs. Everybody’s rushing me to put it out, but I don’t know if it’s the right time. When I do interviews, I like to be in people’s faces. I hate Zoom meetings. They’re just so weird. I like to do listening parties. You can’t even tour. That shit’s wack as fuck.
CAREY: Take your time to make it the best album that you can. That’s what I think everybody wants you to do. I know how it feels when people try to rush you because you’re coming off such a mammoth success. Do you have a song like “Be Careful” on the album? That’s one of my favorites.
CARDI B: I do have a song like “Be Careful,” but I think it’s more personal. People were saying, “You need to be softer. You need to talk more about yourself.” And I was telling them that it’s really hard for me to do love records and express myself like that because I never do that. I don’t talk about love and shit.
CAREY: Do you have any fears surrounding the new album?
CARDI B: People always have crazy expectations, especially when it comes to female rap. It’s not like it’s a competition, but people are always comparing and comparing and comparing. It’s almost like they want to see you fail. I hate the feeling when I don’t do something really good. So I want my shit to be good because my last album did so well, and if this one doesn’t do well, I’m going to feel really sad.
CAREY: My second album did well, but it wasn’t as big as my first one, so I just kept going and doing different stuff. But people love you, and it’s going to be what it is. Do you remember the first rap song you ever heard?
CARDI B: I’m from New York, so I heard Biggie outside every single day. But since I was so young at the time, I didn’t understand it. My mom always wanted to keep me really childlike. She wanted me to listen to Barney and Disney music, so I was only interested in Barney and Disney. We used to go to my grandmother’s house, where they would always play BET and shit. When I saw Missy Elliott take off her head in a music video, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so strange. I want to do that when I grow up.” And then I started seeing girls like Trina, and I was like, “She’s so sexy. I want to talk like that when I grow up.” I always wanted to be what my mom didn’t let me be. I wanted to wear small shirts and have my belly out and wear little kitty heels.
CAREY: Do you remember the first time you or other people in your house used profanity?
CARDI B: When Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” came out, my aunts would be like, “I know y’all not supposed to be listening to that.” So when I used to sing it with my cousins mad loud, I knew I shouldn’t say it because my aunts were like, “You can’t listen to that,” even though I didn’t really know what the fuck it meant at the time.
CAREY: So now when they hear your music, what do they say? Specifically when it comes to one of your biggest hits, “WAP.” Do you care what they say, or is it just like, “Yo, I’m making money and it is what it is”?
CARDI B: I’m grown now. When I told my mom I was a stripper that really bothered her for a minute. But now when she hears me saying grown shit, I don’t think she gives a fuck anymore. I think she didn’t want me to grow up so fast, because the kids around my neighborhood grew up fast. You need to understand, Mariah, the kids around me were sucking dick at 11 years old.
CAREY: I actually do understand. I’m not saying I did that, but you’d be surprised. I’ve been surrounded by a lot of crazy. We’ll leave it at that.
CARDI B: That’s why my mom was always scared. There was teen pregnancy all around us. She was just being a mom.
CAREY: When you were working at the strip club, were you like, “This is going to be the next step, and then I really want to make records”? Or were you just going with the flow?
CARDI B: When I first entered the strip club, I was really shy. I felt really uncomfortable. I felt very ashamed. There were times when I was crying, like, “Oh my gosh, if my mom or my dad found out, they’d be so humiliated.” But I needed the fucking money. I was living with my boyfriend at the time, but he wasn’t doing shit. I used to smoke weed back then, so I felt like weed was necessary. I wanted money for weed and to move out. I just wanted enough money to rent a room. That’s how desperate I was to get the fuck out of the situation I was in.
CAREY: After being there for a while, did you say, “This is what it is, and I’m going to get out of here and eventually I want to make records”? Did you ever have the feeling that you were going to come out of that in a big way?
CARDI B: No. I went to a high school for performing arts. I used to sing, I used to rap, I used to act, all that shit. Once I started having troubles at home and got kicked out, I saw everything I did in high school as a silly dream. It wasn’t reality anymore. So when I started stripping, after a while, I just wanted to make $20,000. “If I make $20,000,” I thought, “I’ll open a fucking business and I won’t have to strip anymore.”Strippers talk a certain way. The stripper attitude is, “I’m not ashamed of being a stripper because a lot of these bitches don’t have shit. A lot of these bitches don’t have a place to stay, don’t have no car, can’t afford this, can’t afford that. Y’all out here fucking niggas for free, but y’all shaming me because I’m shaking my ass? Y’all hoes be showing y’all fucking bodies on social media, and y’all not getting paid.” That mentality stuck with me. I felt like, “You’re judging me, but I’m making more money than you.” I felt like nobody could shame me for being a stripper. When I started stripping, I was making probably $500 a night. As I got bigger, I was making $2,000, maybe $5,000. When I got really popular on Instagram I was making $7,000 to $10,000 a week. I felt on top of the world. I felt so untouchable and so sexy, because there were rappers that all these girls lust over who would come to the strip club and request me to go to their section. They would request me. If I’m so trash, why are these guys requesting me? I’m getting paid for my looks. Nobody’s going to spend money on you if you’re ugly.
CAREY: [Laughs] Judge not lest thou be judged, to quote the Bible. They shouldn’t be judging you unless they want to judge themselves. And that’s the truth. When everything started happening for you in the music industry, were you surprised?
CARDI B: I had a manager, and every time we would be in the car driving to bookings and shit, I always used to remix songs and he’d be like, “Yo, you’re really quick and witty. You be having these bars.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He was like, “I produced some songs before for Lil’ Kim. Why don’t you try doing music?” And I was like, “Bro, I don’t want to waste my time. I just want to make fucking money.” And he’s like, “But this might make you money.” He kept telling me, “You need to think bigger.” And that’s exactly what we did. We went to the studio, I did a song called “Stripper Hoe,” and after a while, my goals started changing. Not only did I want to make money, but I wanted to be on the radio. In the strip club, I didn’t want people to just clap for me. I wanted them to sing my shit.
CAREY: I can only ask questions from a place of, “How is her experience different from mine?” In many ways it is. From the time I was little, I was always like, “This is what I’m going to do.” No matter what anybody said to discourage me, I always believed it. But I think it’s incredible that you grew to that place, and it feels like you’re still growing in that place. Do you feel that way?
CARDI B: Yeah. I felt like I always got turned down for things. I wanted to do a play when I was a freshman in high school, and I auditioned and sang my ass off, and then I didn’t get it. I didn’t get the spot. Everybody always told me I was going to be famous because I had a big personality and liked to perform and dance. When you’re a kid, it’s like, “Yeah, I could be that.” But then I got older, and had to make life decisions. I just thought everything that I wanted was a dream, and I didn’t want to live by a dream. I always felt like I just had to get by.
CAREY: Are you happy with the life decisions that you’ve made?
CARDI B: Yeah, definitely. Now I just be telling my fans, “If you work hard, it could happen, because it happened for me.” I always had a dream, but I just felt like, “Man, get the fuck out of here. Why me?” And it happened.
CAREY: The “Why me?” is what really messes with people. I never told people what I wanted to do because I knew they wouldn’t believe in it in the way that I did. My die-hard fans know who they are—they’re the Lambs and they’re my everything. Do you have a different relationship with your fans than you have with the public?
CARDI B: Last year, because I hadn’t put out music for a long time, social media was saying, “She’s over. I told you she was only going to last this and that amount. She’s so mediocre.” So I used to ask some of my fans, “You think it’s really over for me?” They gave me encouragement, like, “I don’t think you really understand who you are.” I get a lot of hate on social media, so if I feel the pressure, I know my fans feel the pressure of constantly defending my ass. I feel a close connection to them because my team doesn’t always know what’s going on, my husband doesn’t really understand social media, but my fans understand. That’s their world.
CAREY: So you do read the comments.
CARDI B: I totally do. Not like before. Two years ago, Mariah, let me tell you, every single time somebody said some crazy shit, I would flame their ass right back. I’m more calm now.
CAREY: You’ve settled into the whole celebrity thing. In terms of connecting with other artists, are there people you’ve met and had great relationships with? Like, they’re cool, and you became friends. And then are there situations where you’re like, “Well, I guess I could have been friends with this person if they hadn’t acted such and such a way”? I’ve noticed that in my life.
CARDI B: A lot of celebrities invite me to places, but I’m really shy. We’re doing this over the phone, but if it was in person, I wouldn’t be able to look you in the eyes. That’s how nervous I get around celebrities. And sometimes my head starts talking, like, “Oh my gosh, I look stupid, I feel stupid, I’m dumb.”
CAREY: [Laughs] We all do that.
CARDI B: I don’t want to get close to a celebrity and feel like we have a connection, and then out of nowhere they do some funny shit and disappoint me. I’ve always had the same friends. I’m very loyal. If I’m your friend, I’m going to always ride hard for you. But if you don’t ride hard for me or you do some funny shit, I’m going to feel a certain type of way. My husband always tries to tell me, “You can’t think like that because you’ve got to network and this is not real life. You got to understand that.”
CAREY: But that’s not easy.
CARDI B: It’s really not. You’ve got to understand that your business friends are not going to treat you like your real friends. It’s hard for me to put that in my head because growing up, loyalty was really big. But celebrities aren’t like that, and that’s something that you have to find out on your own.
CAREY: We’re all just people, but this business can make certain celebrities into different people. I expect everybody to be real with me. Do you think that the business has changed you or have you seen it change other people who you may have known before they came up?
CARDI B: That’s why I stay away from people. My fans want me to interact with more artists, but if I love their music, I don’t want to meet them because I don’t want to hate them. I’d rather just not know them at all and love them than meet them and be like, “Oh my gosh, this person’s a weirdo.” When your friends hurt you, you can vent on social media. When a celebrity does you wrong, you can’t vent because it becomes a problem.
CAREY: Let me ask you this very personal question: Do you have a favorite bra? Do you hate underwires, or am I truly the only one who really gets annoyed by them? And the padding! Why the padding? Why has no one made a great bra yet? Do you feel this situation is something we need to deal with in society, Cardi?
CARDI B: I don’t know because I’m not really a bra person. These titties be hanging. Even when I wear a certain bra, I have really big nipples, so I need a bra that shows my cleavage but could really tuck my nipples in. There ain’t none yet.
CAREY: We need to do a bra line. We need that specialty line.
CARDI B: Mariah, can I ask you a question?
CARDI B: Are people more accepting nowadays than they used to be? I feel like back then, celebrities had to have a squeaky-clean image. You just wrote a book and a lot of things you said shocked people. Is it easier now to be more open about your life?
CAREY: I’ve always wanted to write my book because I wanted to emancipate the little girl that used to be me. The little girl who used to feel ugly and didn’t feel like she belonged. Honestly, I’m a very prudish person. But when I started doing little tiny things like, “Oh, she’s trying to dress sexy,” or, “She’s trying to always be with rappers,” or whatever, people were shocked, like I did something they’d never seen before. I was like, “Why are they making such a big deal of nothing?” I do think people are much more accepting now. The world is crazy. There’s so much racism and hate and horrible shit that goes on, but I do feel like people are, at least in some circles, allowed to be themselves and express themselves more than they were back in the day. People expected me to be something specific, but I can only be me. We’re similar in that way.
CARDI B: When I think of Mariah Carey, I think of beauty and glamour and wealth. You’re the embodiment of beauty. Nobody would ever think that you’ve been hurt before.
CAREY: I was really relating to what you were saying earlier in our conversation. As a kid, I moved around a lot and then ended up in a predominantly white neighborhood, which was hard because even though we didn’t have a lot, everybody around us had money. This kid once said, “Mariah has three shirts and she wears them in rotation,” meaning I really had nothing. I felt dirty all the time. My hair wasn’t combed out. People didn’t understand what I was. They would always be like, “What are you?” They would never be like,“Who are you?” That motivated me to want to succeed. And I believed beyond all things that it would happen. But I also knew that nobody would believe in me as much as I believed in myself. But honestly, it’s still a struggle, and no matter what, you have to keep pushing.
CARDI B: So you always knew you were going to be a huge artist?
CAREY: Yes, I did. I cried on my 18th birthday because I didn’t have my record deal yet. Here’s an interesting question: Do you feel that the record industry or the fashion industry, from your perspective, is inherently racist?
CARDI B: I don’t know if I would use the word “racism,” because everything is so technical right now. I have felt prejudice. I have been involved in endorsement deals, and then I found out that certain white people got more money for their deals from the same company. I do my research. I know how much money I made that company. My fans buy my shit. So it’s like,“ When you’re not paying me what you’re paying these other people, why is that?”It’s kind of insulting. And then when it comes to fashion, hip-hop is a big influence. And yet, Black artists have the hardest time getting pulls from designers and the hardest time getting seats at their fashion shows, and barely get endorsed by big fashion brands that we literally make trend.
CAREY: I’m just asking because I feel the same way. And I have it a different way because people don’t know how to categorize me sometimes, and that sucks. But I think people should listen to the words you say, because you’re saying it from firsthand experience. You’ve gotten less than other artists who are not artists of color, and yet your influence has been way broader. So let’s fix that. We’re going to do that, we’re going to do our bra line, and one of these days, can we do a song together?
CARDI B: I would love that. I would love to do a record that touches souls. You had me heartbroken when I was 11 years old and I didn’t even have a boyfriend.
Hair: Tokyo Stylez
Makeup: Erika La’Pearl
Set Design: David Davis
Production: Rachel Oliver
DigitalTechnician: Kim Tran
Tailor: Baba Jagne
Manicure: Eloisa Marie Perez
Photography Assistants: Philip Alexander and Josh Fogel
FashionAssistants: Sophia Alvarez Abigail Arcinas, Reva Bhatt, and Aaron Christmon
Set Design Assistants: Hunter Bernardi and Daniel Dolan
Production Assistants: Jolson Diaz and Paul Neves