Creative Director in Residence Cardi B at Playboy’s BIGBUNNY Launch at Miami Art Week on Dec. 3 (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Playboy Enterprises International, Inc.)
EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS

Playboy Cardi: Hip-hop’s Creative Director Era

What Cardi B’s role as Playboy’s Creative Director in Residence means for her, the iconic brand, and the rising tide of hip-hop figures taking on similar titles

On Thursday, Grammy-winning rapper Cardi B was appointed as the first-ever Creative Director in Residence at Playboy.

The partnership between the 29-year-old recording artist and 68-year-old media company marks the latest example of a storied name bringing on a hip-hop superstar to redirect and rejuvenate both their brand and their audience.

“It was inevitable,” notes hip-hop media and publishing industry vet Adell Henderson. “Cardi B and Playboy make as much sense as Michael Jordan and Nike.”

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How Cardi Made it to the Mansion

As a founding editor that launched KING Magazine in 2001, Henderson is well versed in the space Cardi now occupies.

20 years ago, he saw an open lane to cover hip-hop in print while featuring music video models such as Rosa Acosta and Melyssa Ford on the cover. KING’s convergence of culture and the women who defined it was not lost on Playboy as a publication in the early aughts, but it wasn’t reshaping the bunny brand.

Early examples of Playboy’s soft embrace of hip-hop date back to 2003 when the magazine brought on Outkast as celebrity photographers. However, it wouldn’t be until 2015 when the first rapper to land a Playboy cover, Azealia Banks, took center stage. In the years since, the only hip-hop artists to front Playboy on newsstands have been Bad Bunny in 2020 and G-Eazy in 2021.

While Playboy’s history of highlighting hip-hop is spotty at best, the embrace of the Playboy brand within hip-hop culture has long been dynamic.

“There are two iconic brands in hip-hop that were not created for hip-hop but became part of it: Playboy and Scarface,” states Henderson. “Playboy is synonymous with hip-hop, whether it’s the Playboy bunny as tattoos or car stickers.”

In only her second day on the job, Cardi B proved that branding notion as she arrived at Playboy’s Art Basel Party adorning an iced-out bunny chain with a Prada dress. Her appearance alone added immediate credence to the appointment (and visibility on Page Six).

However, the tale of the tape regarding hip-hop icons making an impact at big brands proves less about immediate buzz and more about sustained visibility backed by palpable modernization. Some partnerships have mastered the art — but several have fallen flat.

A History of Hip-hop Artists as Creative Directors

The big brand embrace of hip-hop culture and the cool cache associated with the title creative director both boomed, blossomed and busted over the course of the 2010s.

In 2011, Swizz Beatz was appointed as Creative Director at Reebok. At the time, the move surprised some industry experts, as Swizz was well known for his prowess as a producer and collector in the visual arts world, but was less storied as a steward of sportswear.

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Despite doubters, the Ruff Ryders head honcho provided tremendous energy and growth to the brand’s Classic category. During his tenure at Reebok, Swizz helped sign rappers ranging from Rick Ross to Travis Scott, had Meek Mill model in brand campaigns, and assisted in the release of retro products tied to Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Shawn Kemp.

Furthermore, his involvement in the Kamikaze III — a modern extension of Kemp’s famed footwear franchise — was not only unique aesthetically, but introduced a counter-culture rollout to retro products by bringing out something new first to add momentum to models of the past.

“Swizz is one of the guys that got it right,” says Henderson. “He took the time, went to Harvard, and did the work. We would not see Verzuz now if it wasn’t for all the steps he took as a creative director.”

Swizz’s success as a Creative Director at Reebok soon opened the door to take on the same role at Bacardi.

It also paved a lane for other musicians to transition their talents into new titles at big brands.

In 2014, Rihanna was named Creative Director and Brand Ambassador at Puma. From a product standpoint, the partnership began in January of 2015 and lasted into her Spring 2018 collection. While Rihanna is no longer employed by Puma, the partnership bore fruit for both sides.

The direction introduced on Rihanna’s run of signature footwear models continues to influence products put out by Puma. Even more important, the merging of talents created the opportunity for Rihanna to position her Fenty clothing line as a partner for French luxury conglomerate LVMH in 2019. While the Fenty clothing component is now defunct, its Savage x Fenty lingerie line was recently valued at $1 billion.

Rihanna celebrates the opening of the FENTY PUMA by Rihanna in New York City, 2016 (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for FENTY PUMA by Rihanna)

Through Rihanna and Swizz, a new model for sportswear had been set.

In 2018, Puma went on to name Jay-Z as Creative Director of their Basketball category. While one might not find decidedly Hova design language in Puma performance hoops footwear, they will see a roster full of Roc Nation athletes, led by LaMelo Ball and Skylar Diggins-Smith. In this case, Jay-Z’s influence on acquiring talent proves even more powerful than patterns or product.

While the previous pairings have all worked to some extent, this is not always the case.

In a 2016 Campaign Live piece entitled “The Celebrity Creative Director: Legit Partnership or ‘Total Bullshit’?”, author Abby Ellin spoke to the fad of such deals. “Those in the trenches don’t buy it and they don’t think the public does, either,” she wrote.

This lack of luster within corporate headquarters and the public impression that many entertainers are simply cashing in without doing the work is a sentiment many creatives, companies, and consumers feel.

As with any successful relationship, the ethos of intent and constant communication have to be in place for an artist acting as a creative director to work truly and authentically.

“You can have a great idea, but you might not have the right team around you to make it pop,” says Henderson. “We’ve seen that a million times before.”

While there are numerous examples of appointments in recent years that have made headlines but bore little fruit, Henderson cites Queen Latifah as the marquee example of a hip-hop artist who’s worn numerous creative hats and excelled in several different markets.

He believes Cardi B can achieve the same success as long as Playboy stays true to her vision and surrounds her with the right team.

Regardless of role or title, the reach provided by hip-hop artists has been enough for companies far more middling to rebrand and take off.

“Ciroc was launched in 2003, but we didn’t know or care about it until Puff came on in 2007,” Henderson notes. “That shit used to sit there. The Cardi B effect at Playboy could be similar.”

Why Cardi B & Playboy Can Win

While Playboy Magazine is widely regarded as a pioneer in print, Cardi B is a force to be reckoned with in modern media.

Upon announcing her new title of Creative Director in Residence at Playboy and Founding Creative Director of the brand’s new creator-led CENTERFOLD platform, Cardi’s Instagram following of 116 million was told the news.

While Playboy possesses 9.1 million followers of their own — a fraction of Cardi’s fan base — it’s important that Cardi continues to keep the same energy on her page and Playboy’s when speaking on behalf of a brand.

“In order for her to be successful, she just has to do what she’s been doing,” Henderson notes. “The lifestyle, the Instagram Live videos, the lyrical content, the music videos. With her bringing that type of energy to a platform? It makes all the sense in the world. It’s how we bought into Beats by Dre. No one was thinking about buying $300 headphones, but being that it’s Dre, it made sense.”

While Playboy’s positioning as a print outlet for erotica has suffered due to the access of competitor content made available on the internet, the brand has made an effort to expand entertainment on modern platforms to varying success.

As of writing this article, Playboy’s most popular YouTube video has amassed 1.4 million views.

Conversely, the music video for Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s Playboy perfect “WAP” is already at 431 million views.

For good measure, visuals for smash Cardi B singles like “Bodak Yellow” and “I Like it” have eclipsed one billion views each.

This stark juxtaposition in popularity across the digital side of media means even more when considering Playboy has been on the YouTube since 2006, whereas Cardi B joined the platform a full 10 years later.

“Playboy never made a seamless transition into digital,” Henderson notes. “Cardi has an opportunity to put Playboy back as one of the leaders.”

In 2021 and heading into 2022, the attention economy for eyeballs and engagement in the digital space is one Cardi B has clearly mastered. But in the bigger picture, the game Playboy wants to play is about more than views and likes.

With the influence and sheer authenticity of an artist like her, Playboy has a chance to make money far beyond its print and video offerings. Digital media will continue to steer the ship, but Cardi’s presence opens the door to revenue opportunities that weren’t there before.

“I see merchandise being a big deal,” says Henderson. “She can help Playboy give brands like Fashion Nova a run for their money.”

By branding the likes of swimsuits, lingerie, and workout apparel emblazoned with the iconic Playboy bunny logo, Cardi B could revive the legacy magazine through apparel the same way Tyler, the Creator’s embrace of Thrasher Magazine hoodies helped to reposition the aging skateboarding publication as the aesthetic epitome of hip-hop rebellion.

All told, apparel alone could be the single most lucrative piece of the Playboy-Cardi B partnership as the deal progresses.

“Hopefully, she has some sort of stake in the company,” says Henderson, “because she’s the type of brand herself that can turn that company into one of the worldwide leaders in influence and culture.”

Storied Legacy, New Direction

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The marketplace that Playboy exists in today is much different than the world it was born into in 1953.

With Hugh Hefner deceased and the famous Playboy Mansion now owned by the son of billionaire investor Dean Metropoulos, the brand has changed hands but still remains as iconic and storied as it gets.

“Playboy was more than just naked girls,” says Henderson. “I really feel as if Cardi has an opportunity to bring the brand back to life.”

With Cardi B at the helm as Creative Director, Playboy has the life of the party carrying on its legacy, a 21st-century answer to the man who was always wearing that red velvet smoking jacket.

Over the course of its history, Playboy was just as regarded for its explosive interviews as it was its explicit photoshoots. For an entertainer like Cardi B who is famous for her candid conversation on social media and owning her sexuality through her art, the opportunity to advance the Playboy brand through hip-hop culture and female empowerment proves exciting.

In 2021, a DM from Cardi B means more to a model, actress or artist than a phone call from anyone on Playboy’s previous staff. This appointment is not only a win for a legacy brand like Playboy, it’s a win for hip-hop artists and woman superstars in the future.

“Hip-hop culture is what drives pop culture, and that’s why she’s going to win,” closes Henderson.

“And she’s going to win big.”

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