This past August, Chicago's coolest rapper made her Lollapalooza debut, joining her best friend and transatlantic kindred spirit Charli XCX for a show-stealing duet; returned from headlining a show at NYC's Le Poisson Rouge, the first stop on her Queen Elizabitch tour; and signed the lease on her own place. She'll drop another special project at the end of the year. These are striking accomplishments for any artist, and ones that 20-year-old Elizabeth Harris – better known as her fearless, freaky alter ego, CupcakKe – hadn't imagined when she transitioned from writing poetry to raps. When I met her for lunch late that month at Kuma's, a metal-head burger bar in Chicago's Avondale neighbourhood, I wasn't sure how many patrons would know, or at least sense, that this was a woman fresh off numerous milestone achievements, who is considered one of the top-five hottest female rappers in America. But even if the crowd of Black Sabbath–listening burger-eaters didn't exactly recognise her – with her cloud of burgundy curls matched to her red silk jumpsuit – it was unspoken and understood: This is somebody.
Since she went viral overnight in late 2015, most know Harris as the over-the-top, insatiably horny persona she assumes in her videos, with her flair for witty, absurdist, and completely NSFW sex raps, which exist somewhere between Slick Rick and La Chat. In the video for "Vagina" – her first-ever attempt at freaky rap – her eyes flash mischievously as she licks an especially girthy cucumber, rapping doggy-style in rainbow pasties and sporty knee socks. Her video for "Deepthroat," which by now has more than 17 million YouTube views, zooms in on Harris rubbing a banana suggestively between her toes. In it, she raps: "I want to eat yo' dick (I do) / But I can't fuck up my nails (I can't) / So I'mma pick it up with chopsticks." She punctuates her most extravagantly raunchy lines with a conspiratorial smile, as though she's already tickled just imagining the response.
But the woman across the table from me wasn't the wild-eyed sex-bomb who cracks jokes about her unkempt pubes or pledges to slurp ramen noodles off your dick. In person, Harris was a thoughtful conversationalist and an attentive listener who seemed more at ease talking about her relationship with God than about sex. And she was accompanied by her mother, whom I initially mistook for a friend or an older sister – a calm, soft-spoken woman who beamed protective pride at her rising-star daughter, the youngest of her three children. Their chemistry read more like that of best friends than parent and child, mostly because Harris has an aura of maturity well beyond her 20 years. "Right now, you probably thinking, I didn't think CupcakKe would be acting like this!" she said, laughing softly, daintily sipping a cranberry juice that coordinated with her outfit. "When I go in the studio, I'm CupcakKe; right now, I'm Elizabeth."
Harris was clear about the boundaries that separate her alter ego from her private self; still, during our conversation, I found myself catching glimpses of the improvisational wit and colorful imagery that I hear in her lyrics, or on her hilarious Twitter account, where she jokes about McDonald's orders, makes playfully self-deprecating comments on her own fashion choices ("2 shit terds on my hair," she once captioned a photo of herself rocking double top-knots), and lovingly critiques the wonky portraits her die-hard legion of stans submit to her daily. "So, right now, I have on maroon," she explained when I inquired as to her knack for free-associative one-liners. "I think of the colour red, and I just think of like, period blood. So I'll say, 'I made this outfit out of period blood.' People just find it so funny. I just always had a crazy imagination." She's never had an imaginary friend, she told me, but: "It was this thing I used to do, where I would get on the phone and put my voice in a man's voice like, 'Hey, you're talking to Tom.' I don't know what the fuck," she said, laughing.
Harris grew up with her single mom and two older brothers near Chicago's notorious Parkway Garden Homes; she attended the same elementary school as future drill phenoms Chief Keef and Lil Reese. Her mother reminded her, when I asked about her earliest writing, of a book she wrote at eight years old: "It was called 'Elizabeth & Tyrese Gets Married,'" she said. "[Tyrese] was from my imagination. It was weird." But for most of her childhood, Harris's biggest priorities were poetry, God, and poetry about God. If there were days her mom didn't feel like going to church, Harris would ask strangers for a ride. Eventually, she asked permission from her pastor to read her poetry aloud in front of the congregation. "I was so shy, but I was just like, I gotta get it done somehow," she remembered. Slowly building her confidence from regular church performances, she received life-altering advice from a fellow parishioner: "You know, poetry is rap." Harris's mom lent her daughter her last $50 to book a studio session, and thus, CupcakKe was born.
After years of working shifts as a shampooer at a local salon to afford recording time at run-down hood studios, inspiration struck in the form of Khia's "My Neck, My Back." "In the moment, I was all in my sexual feelings," Harris recalled. "And that's when I wrote 'Vagina.' [While recording,] the studio man was like, 'Did you just say banana instead of dick?' I was just saying the word so vulgarly! And that's when he was like, 'This is gonna be something else!'" At first, Harris's mom was hesitant: "You want to keep the innocence in the child as much as you can, but you can only do so much." But Harris reassured her: "It's just a song, Mom!" The morning after the "Vagina" video dropped, Harris got a call from her videographer, telling her it had gone viral over night and had even made it to WorldStar HipHop. WorldStar commenters aren't exactly known for their tact, though, and while Harris was thrilled at the song's overnight success, it came with criticism, too – that the song was too vulgar, too goofy, too all-around weird. "I guess they thought, Well, if she see this criticism, she won't do it again," Harris said, grinning. "And that's when I went in the studio and did it ten times harder."
But to reduce Harris's music to sheer X-rated spectacle is to ignore what makes her catalog so remarkable. As an alter ego, CupcakKe is brilliantly complex, just as Harris is herself. For every fun, whacky anthem like "Vagina" or "CPR" or the charmingly bonkers "Spiderman Dick," there is a song like "Pedophile," a bitter, urgently rapped narrative about abusive older men who take advantage of underage girls' naïveté. She has ended each of her four albums, so far, with gut-wrenching spoken-word missives – no music, just Harris and a mic – that grapple with the residual pain from her past. And then there's "Scraps," a thoughtful but seething critique of the systems that support urban poverty and the flawed individuals trapped within them. The song is also the hardest she's ever rapped, a complete technical breakthrough. "If someone says CupcakKe can't rap, I'mma show 'em that video," she said with a knowing smile. "It's nothing else that needs to be said."
I flashed back to last September when, in since-deleted tweets, Harris wrote that she'd rather quit music entirely than be seen as a joke by an audience unwilling to look deeper. That insecurity feels like a distant memory, but Harris is well aware there are some who'll never take her music seriously because of how her videos look. "But you know what?" she told me with the air of someone much older. "I'm making money. I don't ever flaunt my money – but if that's a joke, then great! I'll be the biggest joke in history!"
At one point, a woman in her mid 20s leaned over our table to interrupt, asking Harris where she got her amazing maroon outfit. "Oh, this was from Akira, and it was like $30!" she offered graciously. Returning to our conversation, Harris remembered a fan interaction that especially touched her. "There was this guy, he must have been young, who told me on Twitter: 'CupcakKe, I just told my mom I'm gay and I'm getting kicked out.' And it just hit home. I automatically replied, 'If you need a hotel, I'll pay for it. Let me make sure you're OK.'" Her ultimate goal, she told me, is to one day open her own homeless shelter. Oh, and selling out arenas would be cool, too.
Meaghan Garvey is a writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter.