b.O.s. 9.1 / Cardi B’s Ankles / Adrienne Brown

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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On competition reality-shows, it’s rare to see the judges’ lower extremities. We are used to seeing such figures seated behind oversized desks swallowing their bodies from the waist-down. Judges signal the depth of their response with raised brows, crossed arms, or pursed mouths. Perhaps a smize.1

Cardi B’s bouncing ankles have recently expanded this limited critical lexicon. Visible from the judge’s chair she occupies during the finale of Netflix’s 2019 hip-hop reality competition show, Rhythm + Flow, her ankles both punctuate and undermine her authoritative task of assessment. On the show, hungry rap hopefuls advance through a series of challenges mimicking the road to hip-hop stardom, progressing from ciphers and battles to music videos and awards show performances. While the show aims to showcase the talent of its eager contestants, the critiques delivered by its three judges—hip-hop artists T.I., Chance the Rapper, and Cardi B—often eclipse the performances on-stage, urging us to experience black critique as an artform all its own.

During the show’s final rounds, the judges occupy armchairs bringing their full-bodied critical postures into view. Each variously performs the art of keeping it real without reinforcing essentialist law, putting their own spin on tropes of hip-hop close listening. While T.I. has the sturdiest head-bounce, Chance is the most eruptive when moved, flinging his whole upper body into the air. But Cardi B puts her seating to the fullest use, transforming it into a frame for her kinetic form of response spanning from head to toe.

For much of the finale, Cardi exudes hip hop executive realness dressed in a white floor-length coat and white slacks; the backdrop against which her pastel-rainbow wig, shimmering pink nails, and red pumps pleasingly pop. Whoever assembled this ensemble, balancing those difficult colors just so, did so with artistry. But, it’s when Cardi’s fashionable composition gives way to intensifying critical disarray that her presence most compels. In the final twelve minutes of the season finale, while T.I. and Chance take turns announcing who didn’t make the cut, Cardi’s visible concern is written on her face but most energetically tapped out by her feet. In one shot, we spy Cardi’s crossed feet tucked into long-stemmed red heels. The next time the camera cuts to her following the first elimination, her shoes form a delicately disordered pile in front of her now-stockinged feet.

As the finale proceeds, Cardi’s ankles seem to wage their own protest against the pernicious idea that critique and elimination must go hand in hand. One of her ankles quivers nervously as she explains how long the anxiety provoked by these eliminations will plague her. “I really can’t do this shit,” she says, her ankle jiggling in accompaniment, declaring she won’t enjoy her upcoming date, sex, or food that evening in the finale’s wake.

It is the dismissal of Londynn B, the lone female contestant left standing, which propels Cardi’s ankles to a rapid boil. Having described in earlier episodes how much she relates to this contestant as a mother and a woman, Cardi appears almost as distraught as Londynn, who is coached by the male judges and fellow contestants to physically hold her head up to counteract her distress. As Cardi’s upper body seeks to hold itself up and together, her ankles continue to wobble, unable to be willed into stillness. In their urgent recoil, her ankles create their own rhythm and flow, signaling her form of critique as care, empathy, and unsettlement simultaneously.

Cardi’s visible unnerving is even more starkly felt in the context of her role as the show’s capitalist conscience. She approaches contestants as marketing packages, continually reminding her fellow judges that contestants cannot only be talented rappers but must also know how to make a song that sells. As the funniest of the three, Cardi B exemplifies the charming salesmanship she proselytizes as being the key to mainstream success. And yet, she seems to ultimately wish to save contestants (and herself) from this same totalizing system, often chirping in trademark fashion to warm herself up for delivering bad news. Her churning ankles in the finale testify to this conundrum.

We might situate Cardi’s agitated ankles within the minor canon of black and brown gendered performance practices of confidence, care, and urgency organized around this undersung joint—the abuela slipping off her chancleta and raising it to a child with stern warmth;2 Aunt Viv’s flexed ankle at the end of her dance routine after showing her snooty white classmates how it’s done;3 Patti Labelle flicking her high heels into the audience at the height of “Purple Rain.”4 There’s even another contender from Cardi B’s own oeuvre—her 2019 Instagram post showcasing her swollen ankles after plastic surgery.5 Cardi’s puffy ankles suggest that the minor nature of this canon is fitting given the ankle’s generally unglamorous role. Ankles are worksmanlike, unaesthetic. If my back is a bridge,6 ankles can be piles helping bear the load. Clunky by their anchoring design, ankles don’t gesture and express as much as pivot and orient. They engine the march while remaining largely unseen.

If the minoritarian canon of female praxis centered on the ankle is slight, the Venn diagram between this canon and hip hop is downright bare. One of the pleasures of Rhythm + Flow is its celebration of the conventions of hip hop critique incubated at cafeteria tables, in beat up cars, and at bus stops where many fans first improvised the performative protocols for ranking MCs. It is also true that this mode of critique has historically been framed as even more masculinist than hip hop itself, when it is represented at all. Cardi B’s tremulous ankles underscore not just the fuller range of bodies informing and informed by hip hop critique—they also rebalance the imperative to rank by acting as a fretful tell of interconnected care.

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This is one of four essays from the ninth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 9.2 / Food for the Spirit / Laura Larson
b.O.s. 9.3 / Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves / Qiana Whitted
b.O.s. 9.4 / Black America Again / Alessandra Raengo

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black CinemaFlash ArtUnwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/smize/#:~:text=Smize%20is%20a%20%E2%80%9CTyraism%E2%80%9D%20of,eyes%2C%20hence%20the%20spelling%20smize.
  2. https://www.thelily.com/coco-and-the-power-of-the-chancleta/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOJSuIVmv_g
  4. https://www.bilibili.com/video/av21798335/
  5. https://www.intouchweekly.com/posts/cardi-b-plastic-surgery-complications-revealed-see-swollen-feet/
  6. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa (Persephone Press, 1981).
Adrienne Brown
Adrienne Brown is Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the co-editor with Valerie Smith of Race and Real Estate (Oxford University Press, 2015) and the author of The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).