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Why Cardi B is the breakout star of summer 2017

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The best person at the 2017 VMAs, an otherwise exhausting 3-hour slog of outdated jokes and mostly-forgettable awards, was neither its host Katy Perry, nor the majority of performers who took the stage. No, it was Cardi B, whose WTF reaction to Ed Sheeran’s performance became the best meme of the night. That was before Cardi went on-camera to introduce Demi Lovato, and went off-script to pledge her support Colin Kaepernick.

Cardi  was relegated to the VMAs pre-show to perform her breakout single Bodak Yellow, a shame, considering the track is currently sitting at No. 3 on the Hot 100, higher than any other artist who performed that night. With the success of Bodak Yellow, Cardi became rap’s highest-charting woman since Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda in 2014. Few performers have had a summer, or even a year, as big as the 24-year-old star, whose rise to fame is a modern-day Cinderella story.

And in a year where pop music’s biggest female names have either stayed away from the spotlight or broken bad, Cardi B’s real-girl appeal and natural-born talents make her the underdog the industry needs.

(Warning: The video below contains strong language)

Born Belcalis Almanzar and raised in the Bronx, Cardi epitomizes the modern ways that stars are born in 2017. She started as an exotic dancer, built a massive Instagram following, and began dabbling in music in 2015, right around the time she joined VH1’s Love & Hip Hop. Yet, while cast members on similar shows often attempt to launch music careers without much success, Cardi began gaining traction with her Gangsta (Expletive) Music, Vol. 1 mixtape.

From the beginning, she was an artist who knew how to create moments that stuck with fans — like when she turned a viral Love & Hip Hop scene, when she spits a warning that “if a girl have beef with me, she gon’ have beef with me forever,” into Forever, a standout track on her first mixtape.

That same feel for resonant wordplay helped Cardi score her career-making hit. After leaving VH1 and signing to Atlantic Records, she released her commercial debut single Bodak Yellow in June. The track’s name is a reference to the Florida rapper Kodak Black, borrowing the distinctive cadences he used on his minor hit No Flockin.

But Bodak Yellow is no ripoff, and unlike so many other social media celebrities whose musical endeavors came and went, Cardi is a natural. Swaggering and bold, she joins a proud lineage of New York rap alongside Nicki Minaj and Remy Ma, whose beef Cardi has successfully avoided.

But beyond her hit song, there’s an inspirational quality to Cardi that’s magnetic to fans. “What’s great about Cardi is she is very grateful and she’s appreciative,” Christian Siriano, who dressed Cardi for the VMAs, told USA TODAY. “And she came from nothing.”

Cardi’s social media presence is alternately goofy, gracious and revelatory, with recent posts thanking everyone from the New York Times to her high school best friend. She also uses her Instagram as a platform for her everywoman brand of feminism, a vision of women’s empowerment where her stripper beginnings don’t disqualify her from being a role model. “Got a bag and fixed my teeth,” she raps on Bodak Yellow, a reference to her once-signature crooked smile that she later straightened.

And unlike Justin Bieber, who substituted “burrito” and “Dorito” for the words to Despacito, Cardi tapped into her Trinidadian and Dominican roots to give Bodak its own Spanish-language remix.

Unfortunately, just as Bodak seemed capable of unseating Despacito as the Hot 100’s No. 1 track, another artist swooped in with a record-breaking single that seems destined for the top of the charts, Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do. But with Swift recasting herself as a villainous tycoon, luckily enough for fans, Cardi is the heroine bringing pop music back down to Earth.

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