The Year of Cardi B

She went from stripping to becoming the breakout star of 2017. So what's she worried about?

Cardi B is butt-naked in the doorway of her hotel bathroom, yelling about her vagina. On a mid-October evening, she's readying herself for a college show in Baltimore, and the toiletries provided by the hotel aren't to her liking. "That soap gave me the yeast infection of 2017!" she hollers in her thick Bronx accent. "My pussy was burnin' like a Mexican taco!"

It takes all of 10 seconds in Cardi B's presence to be reminded of the sheer force and hilarity of her personality. Simply being Cardi B, at maximum volume, made her a star – first on Instagram, then on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip-Hop: New York – before she'd recorded any music at all, let alone knocked Taylor Swift from the top of the pop charts with the sly swagger of her single "Bodak Yellow." She is the people's diva – or "the strip-club Mariah Carey," as she once rapped – unfiltered in a way the world often doesn't allow female stars to be. In a culture reshaped by streaming and social media, where the kids, without much corporate nudging, get to decide who the stars are, Cardi B is what you get.

Yesterday, Cardi turned 25.
 She took a rare day off, hanging
 with her entire family – sister, parents, cousins – at her mother's house. But she missed her boyfriend (now fiancé), Offset of Migos, who was touring in Australia. "I was sad, because it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm not getting no dick on my birthday,'" says Cardi, whose bedazzled acrylic nails are decorated with tiny reproductions of Offset paparazzi shots. "But I wasn't going to get dick on my birthday anyway, because I got my period."

She finds a cleanser she can deal with and hops into the shower, before slipping into a bright-red spacesuit-inspired Milano di Rouge jumpsuit, complete with a yellow patch that reads "Safe sex saves lives," part of the designer's anti-HIV initiative. She glances at it and arches her eyebrows. "Girl," she says, "I don't even use a condom."

It may not seem like it, but this is actually a newer, more cautious Cardi B. After a few social-media controversies – including when she was justly called out for a since-deleted tweet that referred to Kim Jong Un as "Won Tung Soup" – she is trying to learn to hold back a bit. "I used to tell myself that I will always be myself," she says. But she worries that she's going back on that vow. "Little by little, I'm feeling like I'm getting trapped and muted."

Her life is changing fast. She put out her first mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1, in March last year, back when she was still Love & Hip-Hop's breakout star. It was a gloriously raw and raunchy introduction that cashed in on her TV catchphrases with songs like "Washpoppin'" and "Foreva." She released Vol. 2 in January this year, five months before announcing a major-label contract with Atlantic Records.

In June came "Bodak Yellow," named in homage to Florida rapper Kodak Black, whose song "No Flockin'" inspired its flow. "Bodak Yellow" is an unlikely Number One: a tough trap song with zero concessions to the mainstream, or even anything like a conventional pop hook. In a year when the youth power of streaming services, which now count toward chart positions, is changing the very meaning of pop, she's become the first female rapper to score a solo Number One since Lauryn Hill in 1998. Not bad for someone who initially pursued rapping as a way to monetize her reality fame. ("I said, 'TV don't make you rich,'" recalls her manager, Shaft, who once produced Lil' Kim. "'You gotta sell something! Waist trainers, hair, something.'")

The pressure is building. Her once-carefree social-media presence has drifted toward moody reflections about the downsides of fame. She's stressed about creating a debut album – the very word "album" makes her wince – that can live up to "Bodak Yellow" and the best of her mixtape tracks, not to mention the challenge of creating singles that can keep her on the charts and avoid one-hit-wonderdom. There is a chorus of doubters in her head, she acknowledges, and it sounds something like this: "Can she make another hit, can she make another hit?"

She fears failure, and paints a vivid picture of what it might look like: "If you go broke and lose your career, it's bad – and everybody is talkin' shit about it! At least if you lose your 9-to-5 you don't got millions of people judging you and talking shit while you lost your job."

Seven years ago, Cardi B was convinced she'd already failed at life. To please her mom, she was studying at a Manhattan community college with plans to become a history teacher. Born Belcalis Almanzar, she'd grown up in the Bronx's Highbridge neighborhood, and she was struggling to survive financially on her own. "It was just very sad," she says, uncharacteristically subdued. She's in the back seat of a black SUV on her way to a performance at Baltimore's Morgan State University, and the college setting is bringing back memories. "It was very frustrating – you have to pay for everything. When I finally got a job at Amish Market, I had to debate, 'Do I wanna go to class or do I wanna finish my shift?'"

She dropped out after two semesters, and soon took up stripping – a career move helpfully suggested by her Amish Market boss. "A lot of people wonder, 'Why would anybody want to be a dancer?'" she says. "Because there's money!" She used some of her stripping cash to briefly return to school. "I kept missing classes," she says, "and quit because I felt like I was already failing. It was such a disappointment."

Her strict Trinidadian mother worked seven days a week at a local college; her Dominican father, who separated from her mom when Cardi was 13, was "the cool parent," she says. For Cardi, his experience doing "different things in the streets" was a cautionary tale. "That's why I be so careful with my money and always try to invest. I see people who have it all and then lose it."

As a kid, Cardi had a sense that she was destined to do something creative, which led her to a performing-arts school on the Bronx's east side. She tried acting and singing (though she was convinced all of her classmates were better), wrote some poetry. But she'd also crack up friends and boyfriends by rewriting songs by, say, Beyoncé to make them "waaay sluttier." That hobby caught Shaft's attention years later, leading him to encourage her to pursue rapping seriously.

Until then, Cardi B relied on her abilities to charm and to hustle to pay the bills. And it worked: She quickly broke 100,000 Instagram followers in her strip-club days, expanding outward from her loyal customers, mostly on the strength of playful videos – "sucking dick" and scamming men were favored topics.

After Shaft suggested rapping, he began making beats for her at home, and helped her find a lyrical voice that matched the charm of her delivery.

But Cardi – who calls herself "a negative person" – had to overcome her own skepticism. She thought hard about her subject matter (her first single: "Stripper Hoe"), determined to defy haters "expecting me to drop something trash. It just made me, like, 'Aha, I gotta study these other rappers,'" she says. "Study how to do something different from them. You know all these female rappers, they talking about they money, they talking about they cars, so it's like, what's something that I enjoy? I enjoy fights!" 

A few hours after the show, Cardi B is back in her hotel room, still wearing her red jumpsuit. She's curled up in the bed, blankets piled on top of her, talking about the future in a tone that's almost resigned. "I cannot turn my life back around," she muses. "I'm already a public figure, I'm famous. … It's like, I might as well keep it going, might as well make the money. People are always going to talk shit – I cannot make myself unfamous."

She's faced an impressively varied set of criticisms and unsolicited opinions. She's been accused of not being a real lyricist ("I'm not trying to be"); of somehow "not being black" because of her Latina heritage and light skin ("It gets to the point that you ask yourself, 'Damn, what the fuck am I?'"); of sleeping her way to the top ("I always had sex appeal – and niggas still give me a hard time"). The rapper Azealia Banks has quarreled with her, but Cardi B has tried hard not to play into the narrative that female rappers can't get along. "It's not even the female rappers that are catty, it's the fans," she says. "They just want that beef."

Her in-progress album is never far from her thoughts. "I got six, seven solid songs that I like, but I wonder if a month from now, I'm going to change my mind." All the looming expectations, she admits, are making it harder to come up with songs. "It's not as fun to do music," she says. "My mind doesn't flow as free 'cause I have so much on my mind."

She's aiming to mix the Spanish and reggae music of her youth with the trap sound that's inescapable at the moment, putting in late nights with her "Bodak Yellow" producer, J. White, and dancehall specialist Rvssian. She freely acknowledges she's chasing hits. "It's so sad to say, and I don't want to be the one to say it, but you gotta follow the trend," she says. "This generation loves to get high. They love to be on drugs. This is why they on that shit: They don't want to think about what you're saying."

She cites Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole as rappers who still write brilliant, conscious lyrics – some part of her might want to try to follow suit, but she feels like she couldn't get away with it. "A bitch like me, it might not work out for me," she says, "so I'm going to stick to trapping."

It's barely past midnight in Cardi's hotel room, and she is already exhausted. "I'm an old-ass girl now," she says with a sigh, head on a pillow. For all her outrageousness – she finished her show tonight by hopping offstage and twerking in the audience – she's not much of a partier. She stopped smoking weed at 21 because it interfered with her increasing fame and accompanying schedule. She had taken Molly as a confidence booster before stripping but doesn't need it anymore. She rarely drinks. "If I drink," she says, "it's like, my man is gonna be around, and I'm gonna have sex."

She's been with Offset since a chance meeting with him in New York in February – just after Migos scored their own Number One with "Bad and Boujee." "We polish each other," she says, noting they confer on music-biz questions. "I could always ask him, 'Do you think this is OK to do? Do you think I'm getting tricked?'"

She hasn’t been shy about the ups and downs in her relationship with Offset, like the night in October when she seemed to break up and make up with him on Instagram in the course of several hours. She also hasn’t been shy about her intentions to marry him — and, a few days before Halloween, Offset made her dreams come true, popping the question at a Philly concert with a raindrop-shaped ring. She knows she wants to have a family. "I need to make money for my family and my future family," she says. "I'm not a YOLO person. I think 25 years from now. I think about my future kids, future husband, future house."

And where exactly will she be in 25 years? She smiles dreamily, and says, "I see myself cursin' at my kids."