Earlier this year I wrote, "From Southern capitalist rap to corridos alterados to Bach cantatas, sometimes I think 'music about musicians' tireless work ethic' is my favorite genre." There's an urgency to music like this -- a sense that the musicians are using all the tricks at their immediate disposal to communicate with an audience hungry for more. It's not artlessness; more a confidence that, if the musicians can stay out of their own way, the art will simply happen.
This aesthetic also lurks behind plenty of music about love, dancing, unexplained Appalachian murders, demands to pour sugar, you name it. But when musicians make hard-working music about how hard they work, they work a thrilling, nerve-jangling alchemy on listeners. They suck us into their art without any meta-artsy fuss. We all become part of the musicians' grind.
(This aesthetic is also central to Bach's cantatas, churned out weekly based on the musicians and appointed texts he had to work with, for a regular audience who knew his work and could possibly pick up on recycled themes and minor variations. Because the cantatas were settings of texts scheduled for specific liturgical dates, they foregrounded their composer's deadlines. But that's a topic for a different post.)
On "Money Bag," Cardi raps over a hastily assembled collage from J. White's craft cabinet. The focal point is a five-note synth riff, larger than life and pulsing with the echoes of your empty skull. The bassline is gigantic; other weird synth vwoops periodically arrive, make their cases, and vanish. The beat is equal parts percussion sounds and effects; gun shots stand in for snares, while precise screams and growls conjure the image of a studio packed with people. I'd describe the track's overall affect as "sparse and doomy," but as with most rap beats, once you start examining everything that's there, you realize how full and complex it is.
Cardi's flow is equally complex, without ever grabbing us by the shoulders to insist, "Look how complex I am!" Her most notable rhythmic technique is dividing the beats into triplets, a technique also favored by Migos, Kevin Gates, and others. Triplets are OK, but they get wearing over the long haul because there's only so much rappers can do with them. The thrill of "Money Bag" lies in how Cardi switches up her normal triplet flow with half-time (slower) triplets; and how she makes different sets of half-time triplets sound completely unlike one another.
The first verse begins at 0:58; Cardi opens and closes it with different patterns built from half-time triplets.
[Esoteric music theory aside: You might call these patterns triplets, or you might call them "the first half of a clave rhythm." To help illustrate this, here's The Flowtation Device with the scenario.
Classic Clave Rhythm: ONE.*and*.FOUR./*.TWO_THREE_*. Think the Bo Diddley beat; or, you know, a clave rhythm.
A triplet rhythm at the same tempo is currently impossible to flowtate, so we have to approximate it with the clave. Basically, you'd take the first bar of the clave -- ONE.*and*.FOUR. -- and move the hits on "and" and "FOUR" a smidgen earlier, so that each of the three hits lands at equal intervals. If we were playing classical music, this would matter. But we're not. This is a slapdash attempt to notate a partly improvised vocal line, similar to a transcription of a jazz solo or a praise song. For our purposes, half-time triplets and "the first half of a clave rhythm" will function the same, and the phrase "half-time triplets" fits better into Cardi's triplet-heavy aesthetic.]
AHEM. Cardi's bars at the beginning of Verse One actually do sound like a clave rhythm, as though she were vocally conjuring the percussion pattern from a mambo or Bo Diddley's guitar pattern. Her pattern:
-- is the same as the Classic Clave Rhythm flowtated above, only with an extra beat four in every second bar. ("LIKE," "SURE," "HIS," "THIS.") The effect is spare and forceful. From there she goes into her standard, common-time triplet flow, before returning at verse's end to a more complex derivation of half-time triplets.
Notice how the odd bars here -- LIPS.*like*.AN., etc. -- are the same rhythm as the odd bars at the beginning of the verse -- PRO.*tein*.THICK., etc. On first listen you'd never pair these two rhythms, because the even verses are doing something completely different, reframing how we hear the half-time triplets around them. Crucially, notice the long words "Angelina" and "tangerine uh." (Has anyone cited Mark E. Smith as a Cardi influence?) They extend the final syllable of the triplet and turn the beat around, accenting unaccented syllables and vice versa. The result sounds off-kilter and tongue twisty, even though these phrases are rooted in the same half-time triplet feel Cardi used to open the verse.
Cardi returns to alter this rhythm again in Verse Two, in perhaps the song's most quoted lines:
Once again, the odd bars here -- SAL_-ty*.THEY., etc. -- are essentially the same as the odd bars above, while the even bars change their character. Here, Cardi accents beat one of the even bars (SODium, petROLeum, etc.), mirroring the odd bars and giving the whole passage a tone of relentless aggression. In the second passage, Cardi was accenting unaccented syllables by placing them on the downbeat. Here, she's accenting accented syllables, making everything much more on-kilter and forceful.
That's three different passages scattered throughout the song; three different variations on half-time triplets/clave rhythms; three completely different feels.
By all accounts, Cardi works fast. White tells Complex, "All she does is work on her craft... She has those headphones on and she be engaging beats. She’s treating it like she’s in the dang NFL or NBA." It's an open question if, per White's earlier claim, an artist's hunger actually can "show on the track" -- and, if so, how exactly that aesthetic alchemy works. Using her own unique musical toolkit, Cardi offers one possibility. Mix things up; don't let your flow stay in one place for too long; use rhythms as signatures; and trust that listeners will see you, and themselves, in your grind.