Trapital is a newsletter about the business side of hip-hop. Each week, Dan Runcie breaks down the strategic moves that shape the culture. Dan’s writing has been published in WIRED, Pigeons & Plane, Medium, and other publications. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan – Ross School of Business and Quinnipiac University.
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The Bronx rapper’s realness is a safeguard from some of the backlash that can set other artists back
Earlier this week, a clip surfaced of Cardi B impersonating Correta Scott King in a “Real Housewives” comedy spoof. In the video, Cardi joked about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s extramarital affairs. She quickly apologized for the clip, and the story soon became yesterday’s news. This type of incident could have put other artists on the chopping block for weeks, but not for Cardi B. The Bronx rapper is transparent about everything in her life—the good, bad, and the ugly. In exchange, she is less impacted by potentially damaging situations or career setbacks that have impacted other artists.
This was not the first time Cardi B has been called out for something. Earlier this year, she was under fire for defending her husband Offset’s homophobic lyrics. She later apologized and admitted her ignorance about the situation. Her response seemed genuine, not contrived by her publicist or media team.
Much like her honest response to dropping out of The 24K Magic Tour, Cardi’s approach to managing setbacks makes them less impactful. It also shields her from the continuous judgment that others would face in similar situations. Today’s culture makes it possible for Cardi to attain mainstream success in hip-hop. And over time, there will be more artists like Cardi B, not less.
There’s less pressure to build a persona that delivers both blockbuster movies and Grammy award-winning music. Cardi B can be her authentic, imperfect self and still land on an Amazon commercial.
When keeping it real goes right
Cardi B’s predecessors in hip-hop were not offered to the same luxury to be their authentic selves. Twenty years ago, Lauryn Hill had to tour across the world, meet her growing demands, and maintain an immaculate image—all while raising her infant children. She couldn’t stay at home with her children like Cardi is currently doing. Hill eventually turned down some opportunities, but long after her burnout and depression took over. She spoke about the experience and her hopes for the next generation in a 2006 interview with Essence:
“One of my hopes for artists today is that they don’t get trapped in images that don’t really reflect who they are. Everybody is sort of bound to this supercool, supermature, superperfect, superconsistent image. It looks great on the shelf but it can also hurt people, and stunt their growth, because their image is growing, but their persons are not.”
Lauryn’s reflection highlights the evolution of authenticity in hip-hop. In the last few decades, there have been three distinct phases:
- The superperfect (to use Lauryn’s term). For these artists—mostly the stars of the 80s and 90s—the world was their oyster until a scandal or setback happened. Artists were forced to placate the issue, alter their public image to properly address it, or find an escape. (e.g. Whitney Houston’s public denials of her addiction struggles, Lauryn Hill’s challenges).
- The authentic, but on their terms. These artists—many of whom became famous in the aughts—still strived to maintain pristine images, but were slightly more vulnerable than the superperfects. When scandals or setbacks happen, they contain the issue to minimize damage. They let us in, but only under their set conditions. (e.g. Beyonce’s immediate response to the Solange/Jay Z elevator incident; Drake’s response to his blackface photos and the child he was hiding).
- The realest. Thanks to social media, today’s rising artists can bring us in at every moment possible. Their realness may preclude them from certain opportunities, but their setbacks are often less damaging. By nature, their responses to setbacks or issues are more easily accepted because the artist has built a brand of honesty, and never gave the impression they were perfect. (e.g. Cardi B’s ability to slip up and experience setbacks with minimal impact).
Here’s a chart that highlights the distribution of risk-reward for each group:
At Lauryn’s peak, she was offered acting roles in The Matrix trilogy, The Bourne Identity, Charlie’s Angels, and other movies. Cardi B has not yet had the same level of opportunities, but she is also less likely to lose the ones she already has. That’s for two reasons. First, hip-hop was more of a monoculture in the 90s (especially for women). Back then, artists were forced into common “superperfect” personas. It’s extremely difficult to maintain those personas, which is risky for the artist. Second, there are more options today for artists to showcase their brands, which fragments the control of said opportunities.
There’s less pressure to build a persona that delivers both blockbuster movies and Grammy award-winning music. Cardi B can be her authentic, imperfect self and still land on an Amazon commercial. It’s a healthier shift that helps today’s hip-hop artists create more sustainable and realistic business models than past generations did.
Bardi should keep this same energy as long as possible
At the MTV Video Music Awards last week, Cardi made it clear she wasn’t ready to conform to past industry standards. “A couple of months ago a lot of people were saying ‘you’re gambling your career, you’re about to have a baby what are you doing?’ I had a baby, I carried the baby and now am still winning awards,” she proudly told the audience. Her value and opportunities will be highest if she stays true to herself.
Over time, artists have become more authentic, not less. A move in the opposite direction would be counterproductive.
The industry is already adjusting for Cardi. This week, she told TMZ that she will only take $300,000 or more to perform, and that a performance can’t take her too far away from her newborn baby. She is already getting $500,000 offers, so it doesn’t sound like that will be a problem.
From a financial perspective, that’s a nice come up in a short time frame. It was only four months ago that Cardi B lost money performing at Coachella. She earned $140,000 total for her two performances, but spent nearly $600,000 in production costs. And based on my estimations on the 24K Magic Tour, Cardi would have pocketed less than $60,000 per show on tour. She now only needs to perform a handful of shows this fall to make back the money she lost from exiting the Bruno Mars tour. Generational shift happen more quickly when artists like Cardi stick to their plans.
Cardi B, like Drake, can also ride the wave of the tools and platforms she relies on to build her brand. Social media has influenced most artists to let fans into their life, and Cardi is leading the pack. Her Instagram stories and Twitter rants are her primary channels to emote her realness. As long as these tools are relevant, Cardi can consistently project her image. These tools also keep her topical, which makes it more likely she will continue getting invites to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, and other shows.
It’s harder than ever for artists to maintain perfect public personas. With more social media and access to information, it’s easy for the public to catch artists slipping. When Nicki Minaj—a borderline ‘authentic, but on my terms’ artist— postponed the NickiHndrxx tour because of “production issues”, it was too easy for folks to highlight her drastically low ticket sales and question the real reason she postponed the tour. The shift is happening, whether our current artists are ready or not.
Cardi’s realness will set the stage for the next generation of hip-hop artists to be themselves. When the next wave of artists become mainstream though, they will probably make Bardi seem tame. It’s inevitable, but that’s how culture evolves. Peak Cardi B is her cussing out Uncle Sam about high taxes she pays in New York City. It’s exciting to think that a budding SoundCloud rapper is probably in the studio right now getting ready to top that.