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How Cardi B carved a #nofilter Instagram-meets-couture aesthetic

The bawdy humour, strong visual references, and high-slash-low mindset of Cardi's visuals are as carefully crafted as her bangers

It didn’t take long for the world to fall in love with Cardi B. In just a few years, the self-styled “strip club Mariah Carey” has gone from reality star to global behemoth, ascending the ranks of the music industry at record speed. Her hilarious online presence and ability to craft mega-hits like the inescapable “Bodak Yellow” are both undeniable key factors in this success – but there’s perhaps not enough attention devoted to how she maintains a strong visual legacy, too. With each new cover drop, the 25-year-old Bronx native knows exactly how to surprise her fans, reference her heroes, and get the timeline talking.

A quick rewind back to her early days as a reality TV star shows that humour has always been Cardi’s strongest weapon. Appearing out of nowhere as a regular star in the sixth season of Love & Hip Hop, she immediately built a reputation as the fiery, quick-witted underdog with a steely determination to break into the music industry. Her early visuals lean heavily on her hilarious reputation: the array of character wigs and short skits in the “Cheap Ass Weave” video are exemplary, as is her frilly pink washcap and comedy gurn in the hilarious clip for “Foreva”.

Especially throughout the early years of her career, Cardi played up to stereotypes, and flipped them for her own gain. Debut mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1 saw her play the stripper in control, most notably on the excellent “Trick”: “You ain’t never fucking raw / No matter how much money is involved / Fuck you thought?” she raps, asserting autonomy over her own sexuality. The controversial mixtape artwork – which earned her a lawsuit from the male model involved – continued this theme, depicting Cardi being eaten out as she nonchalantly chugs a Corona.

It would have been easy for Cardi to stick to this blueprint. Her unique mix of humour, strength, and empowered sexuality saw her career take off quickly, building online buzz and leading almost immediately into the release of follow-up mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 2, which took just a few months to materialise.

But rather than continue dropping a string of videos, Cardi took a streamlined approach and teamed up with now-fiance Offset for the single “Lick”, which came with what looked to be an extremely high-budget video set in a casino. In retrospect, this looked to be Cardi’s high-glam glo-up. Gone were the bikini tops and ripped denims; here instead were ‘20s style flapper gowns dripping in diamonds. The high-fashion single cover was equally arresting, featuring Cardi in a gold cage-style corset and an enormous black ponytail. Everything was tinged with gold shimmer, indicating that Cardi was about to level up.

Since then, the young star has continually played with her image. We knew she could do sexy, street, and high glamour, but she chose to flip expectations from that point onwards by diving deep into concepts and left-field visual references. The Invasion of Privacy cover is exemplary, serving mid-90s TLC futuristic realness with a signature Missy Elliott finger wave dipped in neon yellow. The Be Careful single artwork is similarly striking, conjuring a full neon fantasy. Cardi, rocking a short, slicked-back pastel purple haircut, looks flawless in a bubblegum pink leather mini-dress with a hot pink fur shrug.

The long-awaited “Bartier Cardi” video indicated a similar desire to break the mould of what Cardi had been up until that point. By teaming up with renowned photographer Petra Collins – whose ethereal work deconstructs femininity, girlhood, and female sexuality – Cardi showcased her ties to the art world. The grainy, lo-fi visuals are undeniably opulent, but with a retro twist. Those slick cat-eye sunglasses from the album cover also feature, creating a sense of continuity between each visual for the album campaign.

Cardi’s taste in designers is equally eccentric, with left-field visionaries like The Blonds, Jeremy Scott, and Christian Siriano – whose commitment to showcasing women of all sizes on his catwalks makes him a fashion anomaly – listing high amongst her favourite designers, a fact evidenced by her frequent FRow appearances. But her real genius lies in her ability to seamlessly blend high and low references. She jokes often about rocking $40 dresses with iconic “bloody” Louboutins, and even announced a collaboration with Fashion Nova, a brand whose use of influencer marketing and low price points have made it a firm Instagram staple.

No matter how left-field, how conceptual, how high-fashion Cardi goes, there’s always an element of accessibility which makes her truly anomalous in the aspirational world of hip-hop in particular. The early noughties saw rappers stunt in full-length furs and name-check jewelers, which Cardi still does (check the endless Patek references), but unlike “dark-skin Christian Dior poster girl” Foxy Brown and Versace muse Lil’ Kim, Cardi maintains a proximity to her audience. Sure, you can’t afford her Patek bracelet, but you can at least cop her Fashion Nova line and bring a piece of her life into yours. Perhaps her rise through social media factors into this approach – she’s just as likely to post no make-up snaps and emotional Instagram live streams as she is to share red-carpet images – but ultimately she’s managed to seamlessly reinvent herself on several occasions without losing the personability that made us all root for her in the first place.