Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Has any pop star generated an instant wave of baseless skepticism like Cardi B has? Such was the power of “Bodak Yellow,” her spell-casting swagger bomb of a debut single. The Bronx rapper made all kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies about how much richer and smarter and stronger she was than you. You know, like every rapper does. But there was something about Cardi, rapping lines like “I’m a boss / You a worker bitch,” that made Twitter and message board trolls crank up the old “new popular artist is a fraud” machine.

Why couldn’t everyone just enjoy this dominating new talent that came out of nowhere? Well, kinda because she came out of nowhere. Cardi B’s rise has broken all kinds of unwritten rules about how rap stars are made. She didn’t build a grassroots following by selling mixtapes out of her trunk – she got Internet famous from her real-talk Instagram posts about life as a stripper. She didn’t break into TV with an iconic rap video – she got cast in the sixth season of the rap industry-adjacent reality show Love and Hip Hop. Oh, and did I mention she’s a woman? The rules for female rappers are written to ensure either total failure or the loss of street cred. You can either try to be a “real rapper” and go hard 24/7, which keeps you off the pop charts. Or you can try for pop hits and get labeled a fake. Cardi had the biggest hit of the year by any metric – she’s only the second solo female rapper ever to hit #1 – with a track that starts with the line “You can’t fuck with me.” What’s gonna rile up sexists more than an ex-stripper kicking their rigged system in the dick?

So by the time Cardi finally released her debut album, it needed to check off an absurd amount of boxes. Invasion of Privacy had to prove that “Bodak” was no fluke. It had to go hard to satisfy the heads, yet also give glimpses of vulnerability that male rappers don’t have to worry about. It had to give the artist’s perspective on any number of highly publicized stories – her unorthodox rise to stardom; her marriage to the rapper Offset; that roiling sea of haters. And it also had to be a traditional major label smash, full of guest artists that complement but never outshine, on one potential hit after another. It had to prove that Cardi B is one of the best emcees and one of the most magnetizing pop stars.

It’s incredibly satisfying to hear her pull it off.

Track one, “Get Up 10,” is that fiery, look-at-me-I-can-rap, middle-finger-to-the-haters song she shouldn’t have to make. But it’s more than that too. It’s her goddamn superhero origin story.

Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose
Used to dance in a club right across from my school
I said “dance” not “fuck,” don’t get it confused
Had to set the record straight ’cause bitches love to assume

Right there, in her first stanza, is a crystal clear look at the choices this artist had to make, and the adversity she’s had to endure because of them. It’s hip hop storytelling at its best. And when delivered in Cardi’s live-wire Bronx sneer, it lands with authority.

By establishing her rap bona fides on the opener, Cardi is able to focus her efforts on making her album a hit. Instead of staying in her comfort zone of bass-throbbing, cracked-cement NYC hip hop, she dips her toes in all the styles of the moment, her lyrical flow and storytelling ability entertaining enough to be the lone connective tissue through it all. She drops jewel-encrusted knowledge on Atlanta trap earworms alongside Migos and 21 Savage; takes Chance the Rapper along on a sunny-day-in-Chicago reverie, and slays a DJ Mustard beat like a smoked-out Angeleno. It’s an absolute gauntlet, and she makes it sound like a party.

Those unfair expectations of vulnerability are met, and then some, by the single “Be Careful,” where the rapper unloads on a cheating boyfriend over light, dancing organ chords: “She don’t even know your middle name / Watch her ’cause she might steal your chain.” “Thru Your Phone” reveals the flipped-script origin of the album title, as Cardi invades her man’s privacy by going through his phone and realizes she was right to be suspicious.

Then there’s “I Like It.” This is precisely the kind of track that naysayers would point to as a shameless chart grab, like they did when Nicki Minaj put out her underrated Sir Mix-a-Lot reboot, “Anaconda.” A direct lift of the Pete Rodriguez hit “I Like It Like That,” the track has a naturally invigorating Latin groove. Cardi builds on that feeling by bringing in Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin. And like she does all over Invasion of Privacy, she outperforms her talented guests, going reverse Chief Keef and listing things she likes: “I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance / I like proving n****s wrong, I do what they say I can’t,” she raps triumphantly. As the expensive sample plays underneath, on an album that methodically disproves every unfounded criticism of her abilities and positions her as the ideal crossover rapper of 2018, you’d have to be willfully ignorant to disagree.

Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Much has been written about the influence of drugs on popular music, from the effects of LSD on The Beatles to the role lean may have played in Future’s transformation into a glassy-eyed hedonist. But no substance has ever affected a musician the way falling in love does. Like ecstasy, it filters out cynicism. Like weed, it slows everything down. Like heroin, it makes you sick when it’s gone. Love is artistic steroids. And ladies and gentlemen, Kacey Musgraves is juicing.

“Oh what a world / Don’t wanna leave / There’s all kinds of magic / It’s hard to believe,” sings the Texas singer/songwriter on one of the many standout love songs that form the spine of her nearly flawless third album, Golden Hour. For all its grandiosity, the song – “Oh What a World” – never feels the least bit trite. Because Musgraves has no time for sunsets. The “magic” she feels is like seeing the Aurora Borealis, or a sea creature that emits an otherworldly neon glow. “These are real things,” she marvels.

Golden Hour is largely about these “real things.” In fact, its songwriting is so focused, it makes me realize how so many of our idioms for romance have to do with not seeing straight, or losing our balance. Clichéd love makes us “starry-eyed.” It “knocks us off our feet.” It makes us “crazy about” someone. Musgraves approaches the subject from a variety of angles, from the lovely ache of missing someone to the frightening joy of trusting them. And her vision never blurs. “I used to be scared of the wilderness, of the dark,” she sings. “But not anymore.”

This clarity is also evident in the production choices made by Musgraves and collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian. It’s based in the honeyed pop-country gloss that defined her first two records – banjos are little more than signifiers, fiddles play second fiddle – but takes some exhilarating liberties. “High Horse” is a swirling disco anthem that feels like a friendly gauntlet thrown to Kylie Minogue, whose new Nashville-produced album also just came out (in a further bit of kismet, it’s called Golden). “Oh What a World” weaves a chorus of robotic voices into its National Geographic expedition. “Slow Burn” introduces a string motif that waxes and wanes like something off of Beck’s Sea Change album.

Yet for all its immaculate sonic details and instant-classic turns of phrase – e.g. “You can have your space, cowboy” – Golden Hour is great because it has good timing on its side. Kacey Musgraves is at her peak as an artist, and also happens to be going through a kaleidoscopically life-changing experience. The moment that moves me the most might be the simplest and most straightforward of them all. It’s the very last line of the album, on the piano ballad “Rainbow.” The band drops away, and it’s just Musgraves, at her piano, telling her love the one thing we all want to hear: “It’ll all be alright.”

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (35-31)

Here are the next five entries in my seemingly never-ending Top 100 Albums of the 1990s – wherein we get a devil’s haircut, witness the birth of the riot grrrl movement, remember when god told Prince to stop being so funky, and more! (You can check out the full list here.)

35. Beck – Odelay (1996)

After scoring an accidental smash hit with the slacker-M.C. cut “Loser,” Beck struggled with what to do next. He recorded an entire album of dour lo-fi folk and then scrapped it, eventually opting for the other extreme – a technicolor patchwork collage of golden age hip hop and singalong country that’s almost passive-aggressively catchy. He brought in The Dust Brothers (who weaponized ’70s radio hits so deftly for the Beastie Boys), to give a kitschy, sample-heavy sheen to his roots rock compositions. He wrote cryptic magnet-poetry lyrics that sounded good, but meant nothing, making an enduring meta statement about the inherent emptiness of pop hits. He used his disdain for the mainstream to create the most universally beloved album of his career. It’s as ironic as it is iconic. Does it get more ’90s than that?

34. Bikini Kill – The CD Version of the First Two Records (1994)

When we press play on an old recording, chances are we’re going to feel some kind of distance from it. This is not the case on the first two EPs from riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, re-released on one CD back in ’94. Kathleen Hanna leads the quartet through one 4-track punk thrasher after another, driven by the kind of unquantifiable energy that’ll have you driving 10 mph faster without realizing it. And her lyrics remain as exhilaratingly confrontational as her screams. “Does it scare you, boy, that we don’t need you?” she snarls. It’s amazing (and depressing) how relevant these songs remain. The patriarchy is still hurting us all, but the hairline fractures are getting easier to see. The louder we play this, and the more seriously we take its outrage, the faster we can watch them grow.

33. Prince – The Black Album (1994)

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to sound forced, it’s a rock star’s late-career attempt at shoring up their street cred. Unless you’re Prince, that is. In 1987, Prince made The Black Album to appease critics who accused him of selling out. It was the filthiest funk music he’d ever laid to tape, P-Funk and Sly-indebted vamps shot through with odd lyrical obsessions, with little regard for running times. He makes fun of rappers for not singing, steps into the mind of a celebrity stalker, and pitch-bends his voice to become the gun-waving chauvinist villain “Bob George.” Famously, the artist changed his mind about releasing The Black Album at the last second, convinced of its “evil” after a visit from god (or his ecstasy dealer). It sat on the shelf until 1994, when we all got to hear how wrong he was. Prince, playing funk guitar like he’s got something to prove? There is no clearer force for good.

32. Handsome Boy Modeling School – So, How’s Your Girl? (1999)

It’s gotta be hard enough for a band with multiple songwriters to deliver a clear, consistent aesthetic. But a group with two lead producers? It would seem almost impossible, given the complete control the best producers usually demand. Yet in 1999, the renowned hip hop knob-twisters Prince Paul and Dan the Automator joined forces to make an undisputed classic. So, How’s Your Girl? is many things – a silly concept album based on a Get a Life episode; a how-to manual for deploying guest artists; a summit meeting of peak ’90s rap and electronica. But most strikingly, it’s a pure distillation of the playfully deployed golden-age samples of Paul and the dramatic sci-fi soundscapes of Dan. Handsome Boy Modeling School eventually fizzled out due to artistic differences. But we’ll always have this album, and its grand, magnetized agreements.

31. Old 97’s – Fight Songs (1999)

The summer Fight Songs came out I worked at a nursery, loading cedar chips into trunks and getting odd rashes from trees. And if my boss overheard what I was singing to myself as I worked, she would’ve had to consider an intervention. “Lonely / Baby I’m not lonely / I’ve got my imaginary friends” went this record’s most inescapable chorus, the high harmonies lingering over bright, strummy production. I could’ve used better friends back then, it’s true. But this was a case of whistling while you work – Fight Songs remains one of the catchiest damn things I’ve ever heard. Few artists have been able to take typical country-western themes of despair and simultaneously heal them through melody like this. Rhett Miller didn’t add an ounce of grit to his vocals, lending sincerity to sad-sack anthems like “Busted Afternoon,” “Jagged” and the aforementioned “Lonely Holiday.” The walls might’ve been closing in, but the ceiling was opening up.