Review: CupcakKe Builds Her Own Reality on Ephorize
It’s important to recognize that Elizabeth Eden Harris did not arrive fully formed. When Harris uploaded the video for her song “Vagina” to YouTube, it was a one-off in her oeuvre up to that point, an impulse decision based on, as she described to Complex in 2016, being “in a sexual moment,” taken to its natural conclusion. It, and its successor “Deepthroat,” took off online in a moment of true organic virality (rare these days), and suddenly CupcakKe was a meme sensation, listeners drawn to the brazenness of the tracks and the humorous internal contradiction of a supposed sub (“daddy better make me choke”) aggressively asserting that she’d “ballerina that dick when I spin.” Her mixtape debut Cum Cake, though, title aside, reflected Harris’s wariness towards being defined by her viral moment: many of the songs were rooted strictly in the drill music of her hometown of Chicago, including requisite threats and authenticity positioning. In fact, as she noted in the aforementioned Complex interview, out of the fifteen tracks on the tape, “only three is freaky.” Still, all the ingredients were there, from Harris’s formally brilliant flow to her taste-agnostic genre experimentation.
On her latest LP Ephorize, Harris finally completes her metamorphosis into CupcakKe, the outsized, vulnerable, unapologetic rhyme slinger, and goes on the warpath. On “Post Pic,” she’s breaking up couples just from her Instagram posts over a dancehall riddim and growling bass. In “Navel,” she’s weaving through flutes while disposing of unsatisfying lovers, those who say she can’t rap, and the women whose men she’s stealing. And “Single While Taken” returns to the Chicago drill production standby of blown out snare triplets under variants of John Carpenter’s theme to Halloween in order to excoriate a partner’s faithlessness. If her 2017 album Queen Elizabitch felt like a declaration of joy in finding success through music making, Ephorize retains the vigor but disposes of the naiveté, frenziedly slashing its way through fake fucks and Twitter haters.
It helps that CupcakKe’s rapping is as distinctive as ever, founded as it is on the seething resentment of drill but rejecting its declarative minimalism in favor of the jam-packed lyrical psychedelia of Lil Wayne and his descendants. Every song sounds different, but all juggle mainstream pop aesthetics and dense street rap with instinctive fluidity. “Cartoons” incorporates the wall of sound adlibs of her former high school peer Chief Keef as she barrels through broadside punchlines like “A lot of motherfuckers full of shit so you know they walk around poopin,’” while a dissonant steel drum pattern swirls behind her. On “Duck Duck Goose,” meanwhile, she’s busy “tapping the head of the dick like duck duck goose” over a thick, taut synth line. Plus, the musical net is cast wider, as longtime producer Def Starz serves up a whole range of surreal beat environs. “Spoiled Milk Titties” evolves from a looped vocal sample into a Future Hendrix-style guitar solo, while the pop drop and vocal melody on “Total”’s post-chorus is the most shamelessly sublime Cupcakke has ever sounded, trilling “let me know” at a man she seeks to settle down with.
The result is an album unified by its iconoclasm, evoking absurdity even at its most contemplative—or, for that matter, its most aggressive. CupcakKe’s stream-of-consciousness approach works like a free-associating Twitter feed, dispensing bar after bar of offhand references to various cultural detritus, abrupt confessionals, and shockingly intimate details, with the underlying ethos not far from that of a Twitter celebrity: For some reason you’re paying attention to my weird internal monologue, so let’s mine it for more content.
The underlying anxiety that makes Ephorize so vital isn’t discrimination, sex-negativity, or even the unreliability of men—it’s the fickleness of the attention economy that launched her career. “Self Interview,” the most plainspoken and downtempo of the album’s songs, makes plenty of good and true points about self-love and beauty standards. But in pairing that with a line like “most people already skip this song / cause it ain’t about sex and killing” that stares down listeners and challenges their simplistic readings of her, CupcakKe makes the shrewd connection between the infatuation of horny men and capricious fans, cathartically handwringing about what it takes to get real love. She shouldn’t worry: by balancing on the tightrope between meme and icon, between relatable and aspirational, Ephorize emerges sounding remarkably human.
Listen to Ephorize on Spotify