Monday, April 9, 2018

album review: 'invasion of privacy' by cardi b

So I think it's about time I discuss something from my past reviews that has continued to spark a lot of controversy to this day and has been used by many as a cheap attempt to discredit my opinion: that time I gave Iggy Azalea's The New Classic a light 7/10 - don't worry, I'll tie it all together, I do have a point. Because in hindsight, that looks bad, especially considering the hard tailspin that her career took in the years that followed and how everyone really wants to forget just how those singles ruled 2014 and how her phony accent and ignorant behavior effectively discredited her from the jump.

So it might surprise you all for me to say I actually stand by that review, mostly because I think a lot of the criticisms she got were kind of bullshit. Oh, she's an awful human being and is completely ignorant and says disgusting things and oh hi 6ix9ine, Kodak Black, and XXXTENTACION, so where's our moral ground here again? Oh, but she was clearly co-opting an accent that was not her own to sound hard and pay no attention to the Drake in the corner over there, to say nothing of the dozens of bargain-barrel rappers who hopped on the Migos flow, including MCs who should really know better! And if all of that smacks of whataboutism... well yeah, it is, but it's more highlighting the hypocrisy inherent in the mainstream rap hype cycle. And that's not to excuse the real issues with The New Classic - it's all over the place, it falls apart in the final few songs, the production can feel flimsy and dated, it's a slice of shallow pop rap that I probably gave a shade too much credit, it'd probably have a slightly lower score now from me... and yet it effectively delivers what it set out to do, with really solid flows, strong charisma, and occasionally decent wordplay and good hooks. And yet that being said, it was a record built for disposability, and like countless other pop rappers before her, I'm not surprised Iggy Azalea couldn't follow it up.

And thus when I see Cardi B... really, I see so many of the same characteristics. Strong flows, tons of personality, occasionally decent wordplay and good hooks, and what do you know, her breakout hit was a flow jacked outright from another rapper! Hell, you're already seeing analogous authenticity questions, from Cardi B transitioning from stripper and reality show star to rapper to Iggy Azalea's underground come-up. And it's that last comparison that had me worried about this record, despite some critics already salivating over it - Iggy Azalea had time to refine her debut, whereas for Cardi B, despite those mixtapes she's had to pull together a record extremely quickly, and while a good production team can pull off a lot, there was reason to believe this could awry really fast. But hey, I'll give Cardi B a lot of credit for what she's done in her lane, and like with Iggy Azalea, if she sticks the landing I was prepared to praise this... so how is Invasion of Privacy?

Honestly... it's alright, not great but definitely above average - and if anything the fact that I'm not really surprised raises a much more concerning question. Essentially if you really like the singles Cardi B has released thus far, you'll probably like this record because it's essentially just more of that, and since I'm mixed to positive on those songs, that parallels how I feel about Invasion of Privacy as a whole - but what concerns me is that I'm not really seeing that added spark of dimensionality that comes with a little more care and refinement, something that would convince me Cardi B would have staying power.

Now granted, she'll do fine enough on personality alone, and if you're looking for a reason to listen to this record at all, she is it. It can be a little tricky to put my finger on what I like about her personality, but the comparison that kept coming back to me wasn't someone like Nicki Minaj, who always seemed to carry herself with a little more pomp and circumstance, but early Ludacris - and yeah, I mean that as a compliment. Think about it: exaggerated delivery, a goofy sense of humor that comes naturally, not afraid to get a little extra, rather underrated when it comes to technical skills, all of that fits with Cardi B, and the fact that she's still very much hungry with something to prove is a huge asset. This is where the contrast with her guest stars becomes so damn important on this record - yeah, she'll do fine opposite Migos on 'Drip' and she coaxes out what might be a sense of humor from 21 Savage or 'Bartier Cardi' - something about him wanting hot sauce on his chicken is just amusing to me - but she's best when paired with an artist who can match her more playful sense of vivaciousness, which is why she balances so well off of SZA on the hook of 'I Do', or how while she can't really match Chance The Rapper's natural charisma on his verse as he effectively runs away with the song, she puts forward a pretty damn good effort! But on the flip side, it's like Kehlani's leaden presence does much one way or the other, and I was especially disappointed in YG on 'She Bad', a thudding obvious DJ Mustard trap song that not only feels four years out of date but also shows him completely phoning in his verse, he's capable of way better.

But fine, what is Cardi B actually rapping about? Well, this is where we start to stumble a bit, because for as much as Cardi B will flex with every increasing bombast - plenty of sex and brand names, a lot of the formula from 'Bodak Yellow' comes back her in earnest, as well as very similar flows, it's hard to not get the feeling some of it starts to get repetitive. Going back to the Iggy Azalea comparison for a second, one of the reasons why The New Classic actually had some staying power in its deep cuts was the blunt honesty surrounding how she was broke and alone in the American south and had to claw her way out, and Cardi B does touch on that too with songs like 'Get Up 10'... but beyond that any deeper moments of introspection or vulnerability feel few and fair between, which is a damn shame because her come-up offered a very different and welcome perspective of which I wanted to hear more. But this is a record much more interested in celebrating its success, and when you have Chance and SZA backing her up - or even solo on 'Bodak Yellow', 'Bickenhead', and especially 'Money Bag' - Cardi B can carry that lane, especially when she varies her flow. But when you step away from that lane the record can start losing flavor. For as much as gossip surrounding Offset potentially cheating on Cardi B has swirled, she's stated songs like 'Be Careful' and 'Thru Your Phone' aren't about him... even though you can clearly tell both songs rely on that gossip for any real weight, with 'Be Careful' just feeling more clumsy and 'Thru Your Phone' relying on overheated, murderous melodrama I'm not sure that Melanie Martinez-esque hook from Ali Tamposi can remotely sell. Then there's 'Ring', which tries to show some vulnerability in questioning who calls first, but it feels thin on the details and defaults to Cardi B bragging about her awesomeness again. And look, she's definitely got her fair share of quotable punchlines on this project... but at the same time even at her most colourful and sexually explicit moments it relies a lot on brand name references, and it's hard not to feel like whatever Cardi B delivers, cupcakKe is doing with more flair.

Granted, part of that comes through in what I think is this album's biggest weakness: the production. Going back to 'Bodak Yellow', for as immediately catchy as that song is in its hook, there was a melodic foundation to that track that just isn't here across a distressing number of these songs: leaden bass, trap snare or hi-hat, maybe an underweight synth flourish if we're lucky. And when you consider how often Cardi B's voice clips the front of the mix or just how sloppy the mixing can feel - that grainy beat on 'Thru Your Phone' or the flattened vocals on 'Ring' are both offenders here - it's hard not to feel like this was rushed. Hell, 'Drip' sounds like a Culture II Migos track because there's no real underlying melody to it, which is a shame because especially Takeoff is on his game there and it should be better. That's one reason I'm a little more forgiving of the blaring, more atonal synths on songs like 'Money Bag' or 'I Do' or the Project Pat sample on 'Bickenhead' - it can make the songs feel a little darker than they probably should, but at least there's a little more flavor. It's also a reason why I don't quite love 'I Like It' as much as I wanted to, because if you give that song some horns or some of the brighter production compared to that muted melodic warble and fizzy flutter, it could have had huge potential! That's one reason I really liked the Latin flourishes on 'I Like It' with that old Pete Rodriguez sample - not only does it skip past reggaeton cliches and show again that Cardi B can easily handle groovier Latin production, just like 'La Modelo', but also that the more colourful and garish her production is, the more it matches her personality. Hell, throw away Bad Bunny and J Balvin and put Daddy Yankee on this, you'd have a worldwide smash!

Now there's some other nitpicks - I'm not entirely wowed by Cardi B's singing, some hooks can run a little long, she can stumble off the beat a bit on the fastest flows here - but overall I'm left thinking that this is pretty good but with another three months this could have been great. And I don't think all of this is her fault - 'Bodak Yellow' blew up more than I think anyone could have predicted, the turnaround time was probably unfeasible, and nobody besides Cardi B seem to have any faith her star is going to last - hell, I think everyone is surprised her cosigns are as big as they are. Honestly, I think she should have cut this down to a tight six or seven track EP of all fire and reap big rewards as she refined the full-length debut, but in the era of stream-trolling, I'm not surprised we got a  full thirteen, even if it weakens the overall project. As such, I'm giving this a very strong 6/10, but I will say the good cuts are definitely worth your time and you're probably going to want to get used to hearing Cardi B this year, because there are cuts that will blow up off this project. Not great - at the moment it feels a tad overhyped - but again, I think she's got a lot of potential, and I'm okay to see her hear, so yeah, check it out.

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