Cardi B‘s performance of her new single “Be Careful” on SNL will forever be remembered as the venue she chose to reveal her long-suspected pregnancy, with the camera noticeably positioned to display only the top half of her body before slowly panning out halfway through the song to reveal a baby bump covered in a skin-tight white custom Christian Siriano gown. It was engineered for virality; a hat tip to Beyoncé perhaps, but also the kind of canny moment intrinsic to Cardi’s rise to stardom. Nonetheless, I’d be remiss to not point out that the news cycle spawned by this performance has had the minorly unfortunate side effect of overshadowing the performance itself, which was fantastic.
Cardi knows how to command a stage. It is another thing intrinsic to her celebrity, and her television appearances as a rap star have held that truth to be self-evident. She opened January’s iHeartRadio awards with a medley of recent singles and a charisma that was undeniable. Synergy called for her to pass the baton to G-Eazy during a rendition of their single “No Limit,” and this direct juxtaposition had the effect of making him look like what he is: a man tasked with scrubbing rap clean and selling it to the masses with a pretty face. Still, television has a habit of swallowing up live rap—arrangements get muddy, vocals get submerged, words become inaudible—and with a thousand things buzzing around the stage, that ultimately ephemeral performance was no different. Neither, really, was Cardi’s similar medley of “Bodak Yellow” and “Bartier Cardi” on SNL, which managed to be weirdly quiet while still muffling her rapping. (SNL‘s notoriously shitty sound probably did not help.)
All of this made the live version of “Be Careful” even more refreshing. The song is built around a bright and bouncy piano riff that nods at jazz in a way that is not dissimilar to Camila Cabello’s “Havana” (the super-producer Frank Dukes worked on both songs), giving Cardi ample space to spend three and a half minutes warning an unnamed man about crossing her. Cardi has resisted literal readings of the song as being directed to her fiancée Offset (who was briefly embroiled in an apparent cheating scandal), but, of course, the very discussion justifies the song’s existence as fuel for gossip. Still, it remains to be seen if “Be Careful” will catch on as a single; its lightness stands in contrast to Cardi’s other hits, a risk but perhaps too much of one.
On SNL it was captivating, though. Her band was able to lean hard into the song’s jazziness, with an audible interplay between the keyboards, bass, and drums giving the jaunty performance the distinct feel of something you might see at a piano bar. (Or imagine seeing, anyway.) Cardi, eyes closed, cradled a vintage microphone in her hands, her vocals so clear that you could feel the rasp in her throat and so live that her sentences trailed off if she moved her head too far to the side. The release of “Be Careful” sparked a dud of a controversy after a Twitter user found video of one of the song’s writers rapping along to a reference track, but her delivery of it on SNL would have rendered that useless anyway. In pop music, if you can sell it nothing else matters, and Cardi has never had a problem with that.