Wednesday, January 10, 2018

album review: 'ephorize' by cupcakKe

I should have been a lot more on the ball with CupcakKe.

And I know for a fact that me making that statement will surprise or even confuse some of you, especially if you have only a passing familiarity with this Chicago MC. If you only know her from her image or reputation for making hyper-sexual, confrontational bangers in the vein of a Lil Kim or Missy Elliott or early Nicki Minaj, you might have been inclined to dismiss her as a viral sensation but not having much beyond that. And thus when I started getting requests to cover her third full-length record Ephorize early this year, I was inclined to blow it off... but I didn't have much else on my schedule so I figured I might as well check out her first two records.

And I'm so glad I did, because while she does have some songs that fit this image, CupcakKe is one of the most impressive new MCs I've heard in some time, no question. A ton of charisma and real stage presence, a diverse set of colourful flows that rhyme and connect way more consistently than so many of her male counterparts, and while she might make those provocative sexual songs, she was just as capable of bringing explosive bangers and starkly emotional and vulnerable tracks with real intimate intensity and intellect. Coupled with a fervent desire to remain independent and an uncanny knack for accessible but hard-hitting production, she showed a ton of real potential that I really appreciated. Now I wouldn't quite say I was entirely won over by either Audacious or Queen Elizabitch - both very good projects, for sure, but the former had a few sung hooks that are definitely not CupcakKe's strong suit, and the latter indulged in more trap-leaning production that didn't always flatter her, a little too desaturated and narrowly focused. But all the buzz was suggesting that Ephorize manage to strike the right balance and I wasn't going to miss out this time, so what did we get here?

So I've given this record a lot of listens - more than I thought I would, personally - and I'm still a bit conflicted on it overall. And a big part of it is that I think I'm approaching this record very differently than many CupcakKe fans, whom I can see easily claiming this is her best work to date. Because if you're familiar with her content, you know her songs break down into three categories: the flagrantly raunchy and creative sex jams, the bangers with bars that go on for miles, and the more introspective and sober looks into her life and past. The best of her projects strike a roughly even balance across all three, and while the sex songs are more outrageous and her bars go harder than ever, following in the vein of Queen Elizabitch I'm not quite seeing the raw introspection that characterized some of the most stunning moments on her debut. That, coupled with some questionable production choices lead me to feel that while CupcakKe's skills and dexterity as a rapper have gotten better and better, she hasn't quite delivered the smash of which I know she's capable.

And I want to make that abundantly clear: if you're going to blow off CupcakKe because you find her content gimmicky or 'too sexual' or some other slapdash excuse in between your Kodak Black, Lil Yachty and 6ix9ine, you're missing out on a rapper who can not only play in their territory but then run circles around them. And I don't think CupcakKe nearly gets as much credit as she deserves for this: she's got a diversity of flows with rhymes that nearly all connect that can go over both pop and trap production, along with a degree of intensity that makes it clear she's throwing a lot into these bars. Hell, with the mainstream success of Cardi B I'm a little surprised that CupcakKe hasn't gotten more of a push, given she has a similar appeal just with the volume turned up across the board, and even if I find some of her more eclectic punchlines and hooks a little bewildering - 'Cinnamon Toast Crunch' is more reminiscent of Lil B than it probably should be - she's got the raw charisma and presence to be convincing either flexing or on the more explicit tracks. Granted, whenever she indulges in those autotuned vocals that show up behind 'Exit' and 'Post Pic' it makes me wonder why she doesn't grab a pop artist for her hooks - she's worked with Charli XCX in the past and they're a good fit - but it's very clear CupcakKe is the lone star of this show, and her wordplay has enough color to at least keep my attention across all fifteen tracks.

Granted, this is where we get into the content, and if you're going to get skeeved out by the more explicit songs there's really only three of them: 'Duck Duck Goose' - which takes her partner's dick into all sorts of new and fascinating places before getting chopped off - 'Post Pic' - which is more about a guy jacking off behind his girl's back to CupcakKe - and 'Spoiled Milk Titties', which is probably the best of them even as the final verses get utterly ridiculous with some of the requests like licking armpits - although a short google search confirms that's a fetish, so okay, fine. And then you get your anthem for her LGBT fanbase with 'Crayons', which is decent enough even if it feels a shade surface level... but to be fair that's common across most of this record, which leads to arguably my biggest issue with the content. The majority of tracks on this record are asserting raw dominance over her competition in short tracks that barely hit the three minute mark, and while that can work for the simpler bangers, when she does get more introspective on tunes like '2 Minutes' and 'Wisdom Teeth' and 'Self Interview', you find yourself wishing she gave them the same development she did the sex jams. Because for the most part I like her musings on superficiality and those who go for surface-level flexing without actually owning their image, and asking how many would still follow her if she lost it all - and she's also self-aware enough to know that too many will brush over those questions on 'Self Interview', which is a damn shame because this is easily where I find CupcakKe at her most memorable. But the problem is that if you don't expand on these situations - or on the relationships in mid-collapse on 'Exit' and 'Single While Taken' or what she wants from a guy on 'Total' - they don't quite have that necessary step to dig a little deeper, really add some meat to the subtext or storytelling, some of what I really liked on Audacious that hasn't quite come back here.

Granted, part of that might be linked to the production, which is arguably where I'll split with most CupcakKe fans the most, because while its simplicity doesn't hurt her bangers, it doesn't exactly add much to them either. I can appreciate that she only used two producers for this project, streamlining her sound while still keeping it pretty diverse in its infusion of horns on songs like 'Fullest', 'Crayons' and 'Cinnamon Toast Crunch', or the guitar behind 'Spoiled Milk Titties' to compliment the stuttered bassy trap knock or skittering elements that recall drill. But it's also hard not to feel like certain instrumentals don't distinguish themselves enough, like the recorders and flutes behind 'Wisdom Teeth' and 'Navel', or how 'Total's production uncannily recalls elements of 'Biggie Smalls' from Queen Elizabitch. And I get the greater pop sheen on some of these tunes, but when you hear a song like 'Duck Duck Goose' and how much the production there resembles a song like 'Bon Appetit' by Katy Perry, you start wondering if the more exaggerated or provocative content deserves production that took more changes, went a little wilder. It's always necessary - the more sober pianos behind '2 Minutes' and 'Self Interview' work fine for those tunes, and I actually liked the hollow drums and clanking on 'Cartoons' that felt just off-kilter enough, but for as many bangers as CupcakKe crams onto this project, I almost wish they brought more layers and textures, provide the backdrop to the layers I know this MC has. I definitely appreciate her populism and desire to bring the hooks - and on the best songs here she does - but there could be a little more meat here.

And that's really where I fall with Ephorize - it's a good project for sure and CupcakKe only continues to impress as an MC, but while she's thoroughly defined her unique lane I'm convinced she's got more to offer beyond it - she's too outrageous of a writer to be painted into a corner. As such, for me this is a 7/10 and a step up from Queen Elizabitch, but I do like Audacious a bit more for its individual standouts - but considering how quickly CupcakKe is refining and releasing projects, I'm fully confident she can step up and deliver, and in the mean time, this was certainly a solid listen, although definitely not safe for work or those who can't handle some of the more colorful references. Don't dismiss CupcakKe as just a gimmick, folks - she's a better rapper than she gets credit, and with projects like this, she's becoming a force to be reckoned with, so check this out!

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