In her unapologetic embrace of pleasure and pain, the Chicago rapper is a fresh radical voice
“CupcakKe is one of the best lyricists and rappers out there right now, period. I admire the way she has handled her rise to stardom and success, never compromising, always inspiring and also unapologetic about who she is and how she chooses to navigate this industry” – Mykki Blanco, guest editor of Dazed, August 2018
CupcakKe’s greatest interview is one she conducted herself. At the midpoint of her 2018 record Ephorize, the Chicago rapper sounds steely on the downbeat and reflective track “Self Interview”, dropping some of the most revealing lyrics of her independent, five-album career so far. “Been walked over so much, now when I meet someone, I act rude,” she shares in the first verse. On the chorus, she asks “why the fuck do I do the things that I do?” Her confessional tone is striking: the combative rhythm is a Trojan horse for painfully vulnerable lyrics. At the end of the first verse, she gives a shrug, supposing that “Most people already skipped this song because it ain’t about sex and killing.”
It’s true that a great deal of coverage of CupcakKe’s music so far has focused, not totally unfairly, on how audaciously she owns her sexuality. Further up on the Ephorize tracklist, there’s the slow banger “Duck Duck Goose”, which is all about tapping the head of a dick; later, “Spoiled Milk Titties” is one of the most liberated, hilarious tracks about sex ever committed to record (“Front row seat is the pussy and the bootyhole is the backstage” is one of the more PG lyrics). She broke through in 2015 with viral hits like “Vagina”, a sparse rap track about – yep – her vagina, accompanied by a goofy-sexy video in which she dances around her house in nothing but pasties and shorts. What you’ve probably heard about CupcakKe before is that she’s the sex-positive freak making rap videos that leave social media censors shaking; but if you listen to her music carefully, you’ll hear flashes not only of CupcakKe, but of the 21-year-old artist who created her, Elizabeth Harris.
“Elizabeth is the person you're talking to now,” says Harris, speaking to Dazed on the phone in a hushed, unhurried tone. “Elizabeth is a homebody, don't wanna go out, she's just chill and more laid-back, intelligent. Then you have Marilyn Monhoe – she's like an internet troll, she just says the wildest shit whenever she feels. She has the don't-give-a-fuck attitude, that's just what it is. Then you have CupcakKe, she's the performer, she's the sexual side. She's the freak. CupcakKe wants to be out, wants to be seen.”
Harris’s different names, though, are not characters she’s playing – each one is a facet of herself. There’s a pure sincerity at the heart of everything she does; the whole thing would fall apart without it. “It’s definitely an alter-ego,” says Harris, “but I’m definitely an open person at the same time. I’m an open book. Anything is done honestly, and truthfully, without question. Everything about me, when I’m talking to my family and friends, whether it’s about sex or relationship advice or love, whatever it is, I’m very open.”
This is the real allure of CupcakKe: it’s not that she’s a sex-obsessed rapper, but that she’s an artist who raps as openly about sex as she does about anything else (and in a sex-obsessed world, a lot more attention is given to certain subjects than others). And we mean anything: her raps contain multitudes. She speaks on racial injustice in the US; she speaks on the trauma she has battled with after suffering childhood abuse; she speaks of double standards placed on men and women, and on depression (which rings through “Self Interview”). “The music is not sexual – some songs are sexual,” says Harris, who gives an impression in general of being deeply uninterested in discussing what other people think about her or her music. “If you look at a hundred songs, only seven or eight are sexual.”
“I want everything that I’ve worked for to go into my pocket. I'm very much hands-on with my career” – CupcakKe
Harris began writing as a devotional practice; as a child, she would perform her poems in church. It was a world away from the 50 Cent tunes and drill music her mother played in their home – “I never thought to myself, that will be me one day,” she says. Harris and her mom lived in a building across the street from Chicago’s Parkway Garden Homes, known for being one of the “most dangerous” places in the city (and once home to drill rapper Chief Keef). “I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew that was definitely the hood, you know,” Harris reflects. When she was 14, she started rapping – tentatively, at first – and CupcakKe was born.
“I think everything that played a part in my life growing up is in my music,” Harris says. “Being homeless, living in shelters, dealing with over-aged, older men that hit on me… all that is in the music. Because I'm not the only one who should know this. The world should know this. The world should know it, so that the next girl will know how to deal with it when the situation comes to her. I'm not the only one who has to deal with that situation; I know it's many, many girls. Your voice is very powerful, and I try to use (mine) very wisely.”
It’s this radical honesty that causes many of CupcakKe’s fans to congregate around her music: honesty not only about pleasure, but also about pain. Harris’s trauma lives as truthfully in her lyricism as her sex-positivity does. She suggests that her openness comes from her friends in the LGTBQ community, who are “very open about everything they deal with.” Likewise, she says, “the reason I have LGBT fans is because I’m an open book; they’re attracted to that.”
As well as bringing her truthful lived experience to her performances as CupcakKe, Harris is in control of everything behind the scenes. “I want everything that I’ve worked for to go into my pocket,” she tells Dazed (we emailed directly to arrange this interview; Harris is her own manager, PR, and assistant). “I want all my money to come to me. I'm very much hands-on with my career, and I like to do what I want in the studio – I don't like being told, ‘do it this way’ or ‘do it that way’.”
Harris has spoken before on how colourism and misogynoir has led to poor management, and stifled the careers of rappers like Azealia Banks and fellow Chicago native Tink. By seizing the reins, she’s fighting against an industry that might try to hold her back in the same way. “Basically, it's about control,” she says. “I like to have control over what I'm doing, and that no one else is controlling me.” After all, nobody knows CupcakKe better than she knows herself.
On her “Reality” series, four acapella tracks split across different releases, CupcakKe is unrelentingly honest on topics from abuse to poverty to her mental health. “No friends or family, demons surrounding me, sometimes I had thoughts of jumping off the balcony”, she spits on “Reality 4”, the cold, metallic sound of her voice ringing out into empty space. As with everything else she does, she speaks her mind, and doesn’t allow the listener any chance to look away, or miss the point of what she’s saying. (On Twitter recently, Harris also broke her usual playful “Marilyn Monhoe” style to tweet directly and bluntly about her current battle with her demons.)
CupcakKe’s willingness to push audiences to sit with their discomfort is reminiscent of Hannah Gadsby’s musings on trauma in the viral comedy special “Nanette”. In the hour-long Netflix show, Gadsby flits between punchlines and gut-punches: she brings all of herself to the performance, both her sunny, cynical sense of humour and her very real anger and pain. In doing so, she highlights how little space we create for marginalised people to bring themselves – their entire selves – into a public sphere. And she refuses to apologise for any of it. CupcakKe’s talent lies in that same unapologetic embracing of her entire self – if either her X-rated sense of humour or her unfiltered talk of mental illness make you uncomfortable, the onus is on you to deal with that. CupcakKe is just being her trail-blazing, multi-faceted, loud, beautiful self – and she does it better than anybody.
CupcakKe’s latest album Ephorize is out now