Cupcakke photo by Brandon Holmes

The True, Freaky Originality Of CupcakKe

Critic Meaghan Garvey on the Chicago MC, Tracey Emin, and ‘unlikable women’

One of the best things about Chicago, musically and otherwise, is that hardly anyone who lives there plays the weirdo for attention. “Weird” is not cultivated for quirky personal branding opportunities or indulged by yes-men — it simply is, springing forth from restless minds that have to entertain themselves indoors for five months a year. I watched the Netflix series Easy this month, a show that tells sex-centered stories about everyday Chicagoans, and wondered why it often felt so wrong despite the recognizable landmarks and on-point character tics. But for a show focused on fucking, the sex all felt so dorky, the Midwestern guilelessness overemphasized like a bad Ditka impression — as though threesomes and repurposed handyman Halloween costumes are high-level coastal-city shenanigans. (When you’re stuck inside with below-zero windchill for months, shit gets weird.)

Enter CupcakKe, born Elizabeth Harris in Chicago’s Parkway Gardens, who is the city’s most unique rapper right now. Harris went to elementary school with Chief Keef and Lil Reese and wrote Christian poetry at her church as a teenager until she was convinced to apply her talents to rap. Her best-known songs — “Deepthroat,” “Vagina,” “Doggy Style” — are about, well, what do you think? On her third album, Audacious, released last week, Harris winks mischievously, covering her bare breasts with her hands. There’s a song on there, “Spider-Man Dick,” that’s maybe the most bugged-out of her already outré catalogue: “Make the dick come faster than Jimmy John’s / I’ll suck a fart out your ass / Just pass me a little cash,” she raps. She backs up her pledge to slurp ramen noodles off a dick with exaggeratedly girly squeals of “I’m hornyyy!” but raps with the ferocity of any of her drill peers. On Twitter, Harris is even ballsier. “I got bed bugs in my pubic hairs,” she captioned an alternate take of her album art last week; responding to a fan asking where she got her hair, she deadpanned, “I use all the dicks I sucked, pubic hairs that left on my mouth and glue them together one by one, then use weave glue and attach to scalp.” It’s raunchy, yeah — but more than that, it’s hilarious, the kind of idiosyncratic wit you’re either born with or you’re not.

It’s easy to confuse a woman who makes art about sex with a woman who has no boundaries, which is usually not the case. In her recent Fader profile, Harris comes off as intensely private: “You can’t catch me outside,” she says, explaining how she associates with very few people aside from her childhood best friend and her mom. And though her campy, freaky videos have made the rounds on sites like World Star Hip Hop, I get the sense that it upsets Harris when her songs are treated like memes — the worst symptom of our cult of virality. In since-deleted tweets from September, Harris wrote that she wanted to quit music rather than be seen as “a joke,” though she seems to have mostly moved on from that. (A group of fans even created a change.org petition begging her to reconsider: “Our goal is to show her that not everyone sees her that way and she actually has fans who appreciate her music.”)

Writing off over-the-top songs like “Vagina” and “Spider-Man Dick” as jokey meme rap is a disservice to Harris’s formidable technical skills. Influence-wise, she’s somewhere in the galaxy between nimble drill rappers like King Louie and that mega-underrated phase where Nicki would pop up on David Guetta songs, rapping bug-eyed about “two years ago, I renewed my license.” More importantly, it’s a misunderstanding of what makes her such an interesting artist. As she’s applied herself to albums, as opposed to stand-alone videos, Harris’s most audaciously filthy singles work as gateways to confessional, cathartic songs about real life that feel more like poetry than comedy, as revealing as her raunchiest anthems. In between hits like “Deepthroat” and “Vagina” on first album Cum Cake is “Pedophile,” a song about spiraling into depression after being sexually abused, over a beat you could ostensibly play in the club if you wanted shit to get weird. Audacious’s best song is “Lgbt,” a sweet, fun ode to her sizable queer fanbase, where she raps at breakneck speed over a dance beat that sounds like a Coachella-friendly sinogrime remix. And the album’s lead single is “Picking Cotton,” a protest song about racist cops. “This is not a parody,” Bossip clarified in a headline.

If you exist in or adjacent to a certain level of internet-writer hell, you may have read a disproportionate amount of hot takes over the last year regarding the pernicious rise of the often-feminized first-person essay. Usually the subtext is either that millennials are raging narcissists or that women are bad at art. But the real reason for so many youngish writers’ bylines on cliché-ridden confessional essays seems, in actuality, pretty obvious: Most first-person internet writing is bad because most writing is bad, just like most of everything else. But it does make me wonder, at a cultural moment where women’s art seems to be getting significantly more recognition but often as a genre — “women’s art” — unto itself, what it entails to make genuinely provocative work as an artist who happens to also be a woman.

We are deep in the age of the “real girl” (extending “girl,” of course, to women-identifying folk of any age who feel creepy calling themselves “women” despite being hella old), or so we are frequently told. But despite all the new-age pop stars, social media celebrities, binge-friendly artisanal-vibe television series, and feminist comedy acts, very little of this stuff ever really feels as “radical” and “gutsy” as the overly earnest critics tend to describe it. And it’s a good thing that at this moment it’s pretty acceptable — at least in popular culture, if not in the constant bummer of womanly existence — to be a weird woman, or a socially awkward, bad-at-dating woman, or a drunk woman, or an atypically beautiful (but still usually white) woman. All of these are quirky traits that signify “realness.” One review of the recent Amazon series Fleabag, whose protagonist is an unnamed woman who seems like an OK person despite being a self-loathing mess, calls it the “latest edition to the ‘unlikable woman’ genre of television comedy.”

All this seems fine: I’ll take “unlikable woman” characters over “unlikable man” characters most days. But part of me still feels disappointed with the recent bounty of “real girl” representation and the rise of the cool antiheroine. I am bored of hearing about how a funny, rich white woman artist is a badass for creating toxically self-centered characters who say socially repugnant things because they’re totally the worst but aren’t we all. First off, who’s “we?” It’s worth considering why someone like Colleen Ballinger — whose unfunny YouTube comedy as Miranda Sings, a campy wannabe star, awkwardly spoofed rap for lolz — can parlay her “unlikable woman” comedy into a Netflix series about haters, while a CupcakKe video gets treated like a meme.

In the Fader profile, Harris talks about approaching her freakiest songs like a male rapper would make a street record: “as hard as possible.” It seems like an especially effective strategy at this moment in America, where it is both horrifying to live in a woman’s body and, in the time of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, apparently, equally horrifying to be faced with one who is deemed substandard. But more interesting than the graphicness of Harris’s music, I think, is the way she presents it: not as a sign of brokenness, or as slapstick comedy, or even as a response to patriarchal standards, but because it’s fun and hot and she feels like it. Making art like Harris’s that doesn’t just accept but giddily celebrates, with zero moralizing, female nastiness — the kind of nasty that gets left out of most contemporary work by “unlikable women” because most artists actually have a deeply vested interest in being liked — feels like the most hip-hop shit I can think of. It’s not that CupcakKe is devoid of insecurities or unafraid of how she will be received; it’s that her work does not indulge those fears in the slightest.

There are rappers who, in certain ways, have laid the path for an artist like CupcakKe to emerge — from Lil’ Kim to La Chat to Trina to Shawnna — but more than any of them, Harris’s music reminds me of the artist Tracey Emin and the poet Jenny Zhang, whose work is less known but equally powerful in its ability to tell stories without indulging the constant nagging sense that one’s audience is going to judge the shit out of one — the hardest part of making first-person art and the most suspect part of digital identity. There is vulgarity in Emin’s best-known pieces like Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995 (a tent appliquéd with the names of everyone she had slept with in both the literal and sexual sense, which has since been destroyed in a fire) and My Bed (an installation of the artist’s bed during an especially repulsive depressive period, stained with blood and littered with condoms and trash), but they’re much more startling in their emotional graphicness. There’s actually a piece by Zhang from a 2015 issue of Poetry magazine that is, at least in part, about her love of Emin’s work; its title, “How It Feels,” references Emin’s 1996 film of the same name, which is about an abortion. Zhang’s pieces often depict crude yet familiar scenes that are almost never talked about, in “unlikable woman” art or otherwise: She writes about period blood and excrement-stained sheets after holding in your shit because you’re too depressed to get out of bed, or how some women’s tragedies feel sexy while others just feel pitiful. She writes about discovering and becoming obsessed with Emin: “I loved her self-absorption. I found it so incredibly generous — to be just as ugly as anyone but to emphasize that ugliness over and over again, to let yourself be the subject of your art and to take all the pummeling and the eye-rolling and the cruel remarks and the who cares? and the that’s not art that’s just a scorned woman unable to let go.”

More shocking than being an “unlikable woman,” these women seem to suggest, is true originality.