On Friday, June 21, Cardi B entered a courtroom.
She wore a black pantsuit with pink lapels and high heels; her gleaming hair fell around her face in straight lines. She proceeded to plead not guilty to felony charges that stemmed from a 2018 fight in a strip club in Queens.
Five days later, she dropped the video for her song "Press," which also finds her in a courtroom. Dressed in a white suit with an extravagant neck ruff, she delivers the kind of searing verses that made her famous while a white man screams at her—until he starts bleeding from the neck. Carnage ensues.
Cardi B - Press [Official Music Video] www.youtube.com
Though the line between Cardi B's life and her art has always been blurred, the "Press" video erases that division entirely. The fact that the video so clearly parallels real events—along with the fact that Cardi refused to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge that would've almost certainly gotten her no jail time—raises the question: Was Cardi B's decision to refuse to plead guilty just a publicity stunt?
After all, even the fact that news of Cardi B's felony charge and court date broke in the same week as this video's release hints at some sort of premeditation. Even more suspicious: The assault in question was apparently preplanned as well. According to her felony indictment, "The defendant used social media accounts to communicate and coordinate the date, time, location, and target of a planned assault. Tawana Jackson-Motel and Belcalis Almanzar discussed payment of money in exchange for the commission for a planned assault. Jeffrey Bush prepared to video record the assault." In light of this, if convicted, Cardi faces up to 4 years in prison. It seems like all this might be a kind of experimental art piece, or maybe one of the more complicated and risky marketing campaigns in recent memory.
Cardi B Surrenders to Police in Strip Club Fight www.youtube.com
All this makes for a lot of media coverage, which is exactly what the ever-antagonistic Cardi B shouts that she doesn't need in "Press." The video finds its star completely in charge, declaring that she doesn't need any press or anyone at all to back her up as she ascends to the top.
Regardless of its messages, the video is a powerful visual counterpart to an already fantastic song. It's clearly designed to raise eyebrows: Beginning with a woman-on-woman kiss, featuring literally the maximum amount of nudity as YouTube's censors will allow, punctuated by gunshots, and bloodstained from beginning to end, it's a slideshow of Hollywood's most eye-catching pleasures but with a twist. For once, it's a woman pulling the trigger.
Like much of Cardi B's career, her new video and the possible publicity stunt surrounding its release are simultaneously empowering and destructive, magnetic and also undeniably messy. "Press" is full of mixed messages. She kills the white lawyers and jury who spew silent words of rage at her, which could be a pointed jab at the racial bias that leads to the mass incarceration of people of color; but later in the video, she seems to kill all the female dancers around her, backtracking on any themes of solidarity. In the end, there's only one clear point: This is all about the cult of Cardi B.
Image via Time Magazine
In some ways, Cardi acts as a kind of Lilith figure in the video—Lilith being the most notorious demon in Judaism. As the story goes, Lilith was Adam's first wife in the garden of Eden, but after refusing to submit to her husband's sexual requests, she wound up fleeing and embarking on a murderous rampage. In modern times, Lilith has been reclaimed as a feminist icon, an embodiment of the aggressive sexuality, freedom, and unassailable dominance that women are rarely given the tools to manifest, but which comprise the legacies of most of history's so-called "great men."
Like Lilith, Cardi B abdicates her role within the system and fights fire with fire in "Press." In that spirit, her possibly preplanned arrest may be a f**k-you to the criminal justice system, to white male-led hegemonies, and to the media at large. But it's not an ode to politically correct liberals, either, not exactly a feminist anthem. Ultimately, it's a battle cry, a declaration of independence at a distorted and violent moment in American history The point is clear: Cardi B isn't going to stop wreaking havoc, and we're not going to stop watching.