The longstanding joke about VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop—since it graduated from its Dipset adjacent beginnings to spectating one-hit wonder Peter Gunz’s baby mama deathmatch and philandering manager Rich Dollaz’s stream of clients everyone can tell he’s fucking—has been that no one cares about the music. It is a show about dudes being dicks to women, dudes who maybe rapped at one point. A good get is a Joe Budden, slick-talking gigolo whose Twitter infamy has kept him afloat better than his formidable mic skills, or a Stevie J, storied producer for legends like the Notorious B.I.G. in the ‘90s who’s great for TV not for talent but because he’s a careless asshole. Barring Omarion and Soulja Boy of the Hollywood spinoff, the cast is a loose network of lost dreamers angling for a last (or first) bit of shine.
The typical Love and Hip-Hop season is an endless array of launch parties for songs you never hear again after the credits roll, most of them bad and forgettable. (Ta-ta-ta-licious much?) Personal vendettas rise and fall over middling beats and questionable guest verses; imagine a Storage Wars where all the lockers suck. The principal comedy of the show is how much they all care. Cardi B is the new season’s breakout star, a sensation because she’s whip-smart, pretty, and not here for the bullshit. She says everything you’re thinking as you watch the show’s gallery of goons scrapping over marginal local renown. In a cable television landscape increasingly populated by torrid, scripted performance of reality, Cardi is a reminder of the magical, absurd unpredictability of regular ass people that birthed reality TV in the first place.
Her new mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 is easily the most enjoyable body of music to come out of Love and Hip-Hop. Sound off in the Facebook comments as you will about whatever flop Olivia or Rasheeda single you favor, or make excuses for the shitty solo album Joe Budden timed for release in the middle of his first New York season or whatever that Lil Scrappy Tha Grustle situation was that one year. You could argue for K. Michelle, who cleverly used Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta as free promo for her long-overdue Rebellious Soul, but she came to the show with a following. Bacardi Cardi’s Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 is the first time a star created by Love and Hip-Hop even halfway nailed the “hip-hop” part of its title.
The mixtape is wall-to-wall trap beats and scammer scriptures. “Sauce Boyz” roasts brokeboys making claims their bank account statements don’t back, and “Lit Thot” control-alt-delete’s trash dudes’ existences over cold Coronas. There’s a laugh-out-loud quotable a minute, partly because Cardi hasn’t all the way figured out this rap thing but also because she is deadly at roasting on the fly. (“He wanna dab in this pussy, but I don't think he get the picture / He ask me what I want, I tell him make me look like Sub Zero’s sister.” “You run your mouth, I'm popping out, now it's on sight / You gon be just like my pussy—hella tight.”) What makes it work is that the persona on the show is her persona on the record is her persona on Instagram and Twitter. She’s not fake deep on record and an ass everywhere else like Budden or a party animal on record who’s shockingly kind of normal in real life like Soulja. With Cardi, what you see is what you get, and what you get is stone cold realness.
Just when you think the tape is just a worthwhile party rap trifle, a danceable arrangement of good humor and modern sounds, Cardi flashes a bit of the determination that renders a disadvantaged Bronx girl suddenly rich and increasingly famous. Deep in the mixtape tracklist, “Everything” affects a 2pac flow and touches on relying on sex work to achieve a level of financial stability that could keep her kid out of the New York public school system and her dad away from driving taxis. There’s heart and smarts fueling the Cardi B spectacle, and Gangsta Bitch Music, however clumsily at times, succeeds in delivering the full picture. If it’s not banging all through Harlem and Washington Heights all spring it’ll be a crime. Deadass.
Craig stays gwinin. Follow him on Twitter.