Sometime during the summer of 2002, I heard Khia's "My Neck, My Back" spilling out of a bodega and into a steamy Harlem night. As I passed by, a chorus of young teenagers on the sidewalk parroted the song's main hook with (hopefully?) little parental supervision: "My neck, my back / lick my pussy and my crack," they chanted in unison, leaving me completely shellshocked. As stunned as I was, the song immediately fascinated me with its catchiness, its groove, and its boldfaced sexual aggression. By using pornographic terms "like a man" and stripping her song's message down to its essence, Khia obliterated the male gaze and rejected the idea that she couldn't perform in a male-dominated field without falling prey to that objectification.
Fast-forward to last year, in the wee hours at a world famous techno club in Berlin, when the DJ played an a capella edit of a song I had never heard before. Just like "My Neck, My Back," the song stopped me in my tracks. I'm not some sort of easily scandalized prude. Rather, the lyrics were having their desired effect—to arrest, to force the listener to focus on the words being spoken, the timbre of the rapper's voice, her staccato delivery hinting at a twinge of playground aggression. I stopped dancing and started furiously googling the lyrics. The song was called "Vagina," and it was by an artist named CupcakKe.
CupcakKe, otherwise known as 20-year-old Chicago native Elizabeth Eden Harris, was five years old when "My Neck, My Back" was released. By that time, watershed artists like Lil' Kim, La Chat, Trina, Foxy Brown, and countless other female rappers had been using a game-changing mixture of gritty feminism and sex positivity to crunch through hip-hop's glass ceiling (it's no surprise that CupcakKe cites "My Neck, My Back" as a major influence). "Vagina," track one on CupcakKe's debut mixtape Cum Cake, is about as succinct a calling card as any debut in recent memory. "Slurp that dick till it cum / Smack my ass like a drum," she spits in the main hook, over sparse keyboard stabs and a driving beat.
It's clearly a song written in the heat of the moment: rough, massively tongue-in-cheek and rather slapdash. If it had been released back in the early 00s, it would have coexisted easily with hits by the aforementioned rappers—however, in 2017, an era when Snapchat dick pics are de rigeur and Tinder-fueled hookups are more commodified than ever before, CupcakKe could very well end up complementing the mainstream instead of challenging it, representing a sort of evolutionary jump in brazen feminist hip-hop.
In less than two years, CupcakKe has quickly and assuredly evolved from something of a gimmick to one of the most interesting rappers on the scene. Through her extremely explicit rhymes, amazingly active social media presence, and ever-growing rabid fan base, she has constructed a unique persona that is part Lil' Kim, part Karen Finley, part Lenny Bruce and part Peaches. In 2016 alone CupcakKe released two mixtapes (Cum Cake and S.T.D. (Shelters to Deltas)), as well as a debut album, Audacious. And these aren't rushed Garageband demos and hackneyed edits—each release carried CupcakKe's inimitable DNA imprint of raunch, humor and playfully aggressive lyrics.
It would be easy to dismiss her as relying purely on shock value (S.T.D.'s opener is simply titled "Best Dick Sucker"), but for every NC-17-rated hip-pop track, CupcakKe balances out her records with a bevy of thoughtful, prescient and, above all, well-executed songs about a range of topics, from body positivity to child abuse to race relations. One of her best-known tracks is "Pedophile", a searing and frankly, difficult to endure soul-sucker about her own personal experience of entering a toxic relationship with an older man as a 15-year-old. The same creative muscles CupcakKe uses to shock and awe is put to use here to craft an unflinching portrayal of pain and abuse, and it's as sobering as her other songs are fun and crazy.
Similarly, "Picking Cotton" chronicles a tense encounter with a Chicago police officer, as CupcakKe muses, "You beat us and treat us so rotten / Still think we slaves we just not picking cotton." By attacking social issues in the same unwavering way that she raps about sex, she hammers home the notion that they two aren't mutually exclusive; indeed, the same person can work at ending police brutality while extolling the virtues of really good dick.
This artistic duality is also at the core of CupcakKe's new album Queen Elizabitch, her most mainstream-sounding release to date, boasting tracks like "Biggie Smalls," a hard-hitting ode to body positivity, and album opener "Scraps," where she strives to stay optimistic when confronted with the various woes of the world. Lead single "Cumshot" features a chorus of pornstar moans over a Rihanna-esque dancehall beat and possesses one of my favorite CupcakKe lines to date ("I understand you get aroused when my cookies slip / I wear my Kylie Jenner lipstick on my pussy lips"). It's this kind of wordplay that attracted the likes of Charli XCX, who recruited the rapper to guest on "Lipgloss," a song off her well-received new mixtape Number 1 Angel, thus introducing CupcakKe to a whole new audience. Recently, the Canadian synthpop band K.I.D. also featured CupcakKe on their single "Boy," showing that her pop star persona can easily translate outside of the Soundcloud hip-hop scene.
Speaking of breaking down barriers, CupcakKe is also becoming famous for taking her eyebrow-raising lyrics and applying them to her real life, meshing her artistic statement and her everyday existence. A quick perusal of her Twitter feed provides deadpan menstruation jokes ("Do my period suppose to smell like fish and shrimp fried rice?"), chronicles of tour life ("I just farted 17 times in LAX airport... 1 for each terminal I guess") and personal goals (her bio reads "GOING TO SUCK 2017 DICKS IN 2017"). Every tweet is met with thousands of likes and dozens of in-the-know replies from her fans, whom she dubs "Slurpers."
Obviously, this is comedy—but it's also something unprecedented in the realm of pop music. Fans see CupcakKe's persona as a liberation, a freaky in-joke, a way to beat haters to the punch, like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club except with no need for a make-over in the last scene. CupcakKe doesn't only go through the typical hip-hop norm of proclaiming herself to be the greatest; she truly presents herself as other, honest to a fault and proud to call anyone else on their bluff. Undoubtedly, sex sells, and CupcakKe is laughing all the way to the bank.
Cameron Cook is a writer based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.