I was pleasantly surprised over winter break by director Geremy Jasper’s hearty indie rap film Patti Cake$, an affecting coming-of-age yarn about a young white rapper trying to make it in, of all places, North New Jersey. Patricia, the protagonist — who’d prefer to be called “Killa P” — is leagues more talented than the wastoids and small-time dealers populating the rap cyphers and open-mic nights she frequents around Bergen County, but no one takes her seriously. She’s a woman, and one who doesn’t quite fit the buxom, bionic figure celebrated in rap mags and music videos. Townies call her “Dumbo” — her last name’s Dombrowski, but the weight joke is lost on no one — and work hard to tear her down. The acceptable roles for men who rap are infinite. You can be a cornrowed philosopher; a dreadlocked dandy; a rainbow-haired, face-tatted creep; a grizzled, bearded traditionalist; or a slick-haired, leather-clad greaser. Women in hip-hop’s mainstream get to be the gangster’s moll, the sexpot, or the wizened bohemian. Either you’re “the Baddest Bitch” or you’re kicking that self-love conscious shit.
I admit to pigeonholing the Chicago rapper CupcakKe as run-of-the-mill X-rated sex rap upon discovering her video for “Vagina” in 2015. She spends most of it rolling around a living-room sofa set wearing pasties, alternating between nursing an oversize rainbow lollipop and play-fellating a large pickle, all the while chanting lines about bodily fluids and getting flown out West for trysts. I appreciated it as a lowbrow laugh riot, and snickered at it with friends the same way I did with seminal internet novelty cuts like Lady’s “Yankin’” and Riskay’s “Smell Yo Dick.” I was wrong; even in the early stages of her career, CupcakKe was a little more raw, self-deprecating, and real than the next nearest viral flash in the pan. Her 2016 cut “Best Dick Sucker” joked about worrying what her breath smells like during oral sex. In “Deepthroat,” she considered using chopsticks during the act because she just got her nails done. Her albums balanced gleeful smut like “Cumshot” with stressed-out venting sessions like “Author” and “Budget.”
This month’s Ephorize feels like a breakthrough for CupcakKe. It’s a crystallization of her best and weirdest instincts refined by a tighter control of her instrument and a fearless, earnest creativity. It’s apparent from the first song that she’s playing a different game. “2 Minutes” is a fresh twist on your textbook motivational rap anthem. It starts out clean and inspirational (“Reminding you to count your blessings / Cause some ain’t make it to they breakfast”) but by the end of verse one, CupcakKe has compared bumps in the road of life to “a pussy shaved down.” By verse two, she’s leveling with us and admitting this pep talk is for herself too: “I’m dealing with real shit / My stretch marks really itch / My hair haven’t grown an inch / But I’m still that bitch.” She stays this grounded throughout the album. “They always ask me if my tats hurt, but the hurt’s why I got the tattoos,” she quips in “Self Interview” before deciding a few lines later that “most people already skipped this song cause it ain’t about sex and killing.”
She’s wrong. Ephorize’s introspective moments give it depth to match its more colorful material’s brusqueness and vulgarity. Yes, the songs about sex are likely going to be the draw, but it’s the rapper’s signature mix of kooky images and an airtight, no-nonsense delivery fueling the whole enterprise. “Duck Duck Goose” is pure porno slapstick: “Coochie guaranteed to put you to sleep so damn soon / Riding on that dick, I’m reading Goodnight Moon.” “Wisdom Teeth” takes hilarious issue with dudes who spend money looking great on Instagram to their daily detriment: “Look, young nigga, don’t force it / Spent all your green on your outfit lookin’ like the armed forces / Look inside your pocket, you left with a small portion / Real talk, my voice would be hoarse if it was horseshit.” The gay bar celebration “Crayons” advises anyone facing homophobia to “curve that bitch like a rainbow.” At her best, CupcakKe is a semi-automatic fully loaded with ridiculous puns.
Zapping from the austere “2 Minutes” straight into the breakneck, demented kids’-TV references of the standout “Cartoons” (“I don’t look for niggas, so fuck Waldo / Bitch, I’m cocky like Johnny Bravo”) and later on, sequencing the self-doubt of “Self Interview,” the foreboding flutes and murder raps of “Navel,” and the coital squeals of “Spoiled Milk Titties” all in a row breaks the notion that CupcakKe is or even needs to be any one kind of rapper. She can flow over lumbering trap beats and skip through lighthearted dancehall and salsa productions. She can be the Chitown teen who got her kicks remixing Chief Keef and the heir apparent to the ratchet magic of Lil’ Kim’s “Big Momma Thang.” CupcakKe’s got all her moves down. It’s up to the world to figure her out.