Cardi B Takes the Stage at Jingle Ball, Her First Performance Since Announcing Her Split from Offset

 vanityfair.com  12/8/2018 8:42:00 PM   Josh Duboff

by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

The artist chosen for the final performance slot at the Z100 Jingle Ball—the annual December concert event, for which iHeartRadio corrals a dozen or so of the current biggest pop acts—is generally a pretty decent referendum on where pop music is that given year. Taylor Swift closed the show in 2014 (a few months after 1989 was released) and in 2017 (following Reputation’s debut). Justin Bieber and The Weeknd have performed last in past years. And this year, in 2018, Jingle Ball was closed by someone who had never even performed at a previous New York City Jingle Ball, but whose presence as the show’s pre-eminent act felt utterly obvious (“of course it’s her”), Cardi B.

Friday was—even by Cardi’s neon outsize standards—a wild day for the 26-year-old. The Bronx rapper appeared in court that morning and was released without bail, facing charges of assault and reckless endangerment stemming from an August fight. She also received five Grammy nominations, including one for album of the year; it appears, based on video footage, that Cardi actually found out about the nominations as she made her way into court. And this capped the end of an intense week for the star: on Tuesday night, Cardi revealed, via her Instagram account, that she and husband Offset were separating. (The next day, she posted a photo of her daughter, Kulture, for the first time.)

A significant part of Cardi’s success has been—apologies for using an omipresent 2018 Internet buzzword—her authenticity. Her Instagram video posts often feel as candid and “real” as the sort of content your real-life good friends would DM you. She isn’t afraid to openly discuss controversies or rumors or her feelings.

On stage at Madison Square Garden, though, for her first performance since announcing the split with Offset, Cardi was decidedly muted. She did not reference her split or the court date or the Grammy nominations on stage. The closest she came to revealing her mindset came midway through the set when she noted, “I was having a bad day today . . . ” (without offering any further explanation) before launching into a spirited rendition of her smash summer hit, “I Like It.” Other mid-song chatter was kept to a minimum, save for an occasional interjection, including a reference to Normani (“I’m not like Normani, I can’t sing and dance at the same time,” when taking a brief water break), or a refreshingly real-talk introduction to set-closer “Bodak Yellow” (“I’m going to be performing this song until the day I die. . .”).

The crowd—comprised of mostly teenagers (though with many parents and “adults” mixed in)—was never as engaged as during Cardi’s set (in 2018, “engagement” is measured by how many cell phones you see foisted in the air). Cardi works through her hits at a quick and frenetic pace, with a hype man on stage frequently asking the crowd to “give it up for Cardi B”; no matter what your favorite song on Invasion of Privacy was, you likely got to hear it. (A tween girl sitting near me recited every Cardi song into her front-facing camera, held out in front of her, not even looking at the stage—no doubt for an Instagram Live or perhaps a very long Snapchat story. A metaphor for something!)

There were several first-time Jingle Ball performers this year, giving the lineup a slightly fresher feel than in previous iterations. Khalid performed in the second-to-last slot, and the crowd responded to his opening song—“Young, Dumb, and Broke”—with enthusiasm. His earnest, low-key energy seems to have earned the 20-year-old a wide following among the tween and teenage sets, even if he didn’t generate quite the same frenzy as some of the other acts. (He was joined by Normani for a smooth and appealing performance of their hit “Love Lies.”) Alessia Cara—who featured alongside Khalid on last year’s “1-800-273-8255,” by Logic—performed her set in a suit and tie. Cara’s down-to-earth-ness would make even a T-shirted Ed Sheeran seem overly mannered. Her songs—many of which discuss feelings of loneliness and anxiety—seem particularly well-suited to the current cultural moment.

Dua Lipa and Bebe Rexha—both nominated for a pair of Grammys on Friday, including in the Best New Artist category—as well as Camila Cabello, were the closest thing the night had in the vein of traditional pop acts. Dua Lipa, dressed in a shimmering color wheel of a mini-dress, worked through her hits (“New Rules,” “One Kiss”) efficiently and effectively. It’s almost as if she was designed in a factory for pop stardom; her second album can’t come soon enough. Rexha—wearing an unusual red outfit, marked by a giant red feathered collar protruding behind her head—has a chatty and fun stage presence, as if your college roommate’s best friend became a pop star. “If you don’t know I’m from Brooklyn, shame on you,” she said at one point.

Cabello—dressed in a silver bodysuit—seemed more confident on stage than she has at previous points this year, taking hold of each of her songs and taking her time: she comes off as equally interested in belting ballad “Consequences” at the piano as in performing an energetic dance break to her underrated “Into It.” Cabello’s friend, Shawn Mendes, performed earlier in the night, and also seemed similarly more comfortable on stage than he had in his previous Jingle Ball showings. He performs each of his hits at full tilt now, not with a question mark but with an exclamation point. (Perhaps overcome by my proximity to so many teenagers, I typed “Shawn is AMIABLE AF” in my notes during the show, right after he locked eyes with an audience member and said, “I’m gonna throw this pick to you, you gotta catch it.”)

G-Eazy, also a first time Jingle Ball participant, generated more interest from the crowd than one might have imagined, though it was telling that the song of his generating the most excitement was his duet with (absent) ex-girlfriend, Halsey, whose vocals were piped in. Calvin Harris’s set briefly gave Madison Square Garden the feel of a Vegas nightclub (and no performer got the moms in the crowd on their feet faster). There is something pretty electric, and amusing, about thousands of people shouting “As! The! Leaves! Turn! Brown!” together in unison, as took place during Harris’s “Summer.”

As the concert wound down, a woman and her friend in the row in front of me, both wearing light-up antlers, helped a stranger find his wallet, which had apparently fallen out of his pocket during some exuberant dancing during Dua Lipa’s set. All of them turned their iPhone flashlights on, and, after a few minutes, at this point toward the end of Khalid’s set, they found the wallet. Joyous at their success, the strangers all hugged. After five hours of shimmying and Storying and shout-singing together, the audience emptied out of the arena and into the freezing New York evening, all still united with the chorus of “I Like It” repeating in our heads.

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