Thursday, November 15, 2018

album review: 'eden' by cupcakke

So look, I've softened a bit on my opinion that artists might want to avoid dropping multiple albums in a year - between Eric Taxxon and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, some acts have proven to be prolific and refined enough to pull it off, and in the era where buzz can evaporate incredibly quickly, I get the desire to rebound.

And of anyone I've covered this year, I'd argue CupcakKe has the strongest case for it. She might have built her brand off of provocative sex jams and bangers with flows that go on for miles, but I've always found her most compelling when she split the difference with more contemplative and introspective content, a balance she nailed on her debut Audacious but has felt ever so slightly askew on both Queen Elizabitch and Ephorize. Now I'm not surprised that balance was off - the more wild and colourful songs were the ones that got her famous and snagged her a touring slot opening for Iggy Azalea, and when that tour got cancelled she needed something to make up the opportunity - but I worried that a rushed approach might further pigeonhole her into material where she's really a more interesting and thought-provoking MC. That said, this really has been a year where women have been running the table with hip-hop, from the mainstream where Cardi B's debut racked up hits and really has grown better with every listen I give it, to the underground where Jean Grae, Noname, and Dessa have put up some of the best albums of the year. And yeah, while I liked Ephorize, I hoped this streamlined project could really deliver for CupcakKe, so what did we get from Eden?

So here's the thing: unless the albums are taking radically different thematic directions, I've usually held the opinion that if an artist is going to drop more than one project in a year, it might make more sense to streamline it to make one truly great album than two pretty good ones. And much to my frustration, I'd probably include CupcakKe's Eden in that conversation - hell, probably moreso with this than with Ephorize, because while it is more of a streamlined project that features a few top-quality bangers, it's also her album with her least dimensionality to date, and given that this is following a trend after Ephorize, I'm increasingly worried CupcakKe's lane is starting to narrow considerably.

And look, I'm fully aware that most of the people coming to a CupcakKe album aren't really looking for more thoughtful or introspective material. They want bangers and creatively explicit content, and I can't deny that CupcakKe will deliver that in spades, on Eden more than ever. And I'll say this about CupcakKe, she's never stopped surprising me when it comes to sexual metaphors with the sort of huge hooks that mean you'll never quite forget them either, so from the craving for mature sex on 'Blackjack' to the fingering anthem 'Typo' that contains a Tana-con reference - seriously - to 'Garfield', which only slightly ruined a part of my childhood... but I can't deny that CupcakKe commits to it. That's one thing I've always admired about CupcakKe beyond just her creativity and insane skills on the mic, her commitment to selling all of this, complete with adlibs that leave nothing to the imagination and make it very clear that she's working her ass off with a lot of genuine sincerity. And this is where the shorter album length works in her favour: the dogged, breathless momentum does not slow down, and it ends just at the point where the audience might need a breather. 

So okay, points for momentum and plenty more for the well-structured flows that can change up effectively and show a lot of pure skill as an MC - hell, the opener 'PetSmart' switches up over a half-dozen times and always sounds phenomenal for that sort of ferocious flexing - but right after that we have 'Cereal And Water', a song with much of the same energy but one that gets strikingly introspective, digging into the broken families and systems that might cause someone to run wild, turn black women against each other, reinforce a tabloid-crazed culture, and compromise a hustle to do better. It's the sort of sharply presented insight brought early to the album that can't help but set an expectation where she could take this material... and then we really don't get much more of it for the rest of the project. And while I'd certainly prefer to see more of the insight, for Eden itself it becomes a sequencing issue, if only to space out the bars of lascivious debauchery to come. But then we don't get any more cuts with a similar conscious aim until the closing song, 'A.U.T.I.S.M.', and... okay, I don't deny that CupcakKe is sincere and supportive for her fans on the spectrum, it never feels self-effacing or cynical or anything less than genuine - as someone who is on the spectrum, I do appreciate that. But maybe it's the bluntness of the production and delivery and the slightly darker tone of the production, it doesn't have the same sparkle as 'Crayons' did and given its oddly abortive structure, it doesn't quite hit the mark for me. And beyond that... hey look, if you want colourful and frequently hilarious bangers, you get 'Quiz', the farting in a guy's face with 'Starbucks', the damn near anthemic silliness of 'Prenup', and the glassy trap gloss of 'Fabric' which references 21 Savage and might be more credibly violent! And while I tend to be on the fence with CupcakKe's relationship drama songs, outside of the hook I actually found the storytelling of 'Dangled' worked pretty well and even if she did get played she's not sticking around for it to continue.

Now this takes us to the production, where I've said before that I've been looking for CupcakKe to get more colourful, vibrant melodies to back her trap beats... and honestly, like with Ephorize I'd struggle to always say she has the most lush or flattering material, but there's quality here. But it's also where we have to address the elephant in the room, the woman who has also brought a lot of flagrantly sexual material and has had a massive run in the mainstream over the past year-and-a-half - and look, I've tried to avoid the CupcakKe and Cardi B comparison, mostly because CupcakKe is a considerably better rapper and tends to be a little more creative... but it's hard to ignore the comparison when there are similar production choices made between here and Invasion Of Privacy, especially when Cardi is shelling out for the big pop hooks. Hell, look at the horns, guitars and Latin flair of 'Prenup' and try to tell me it's not aiming for similar territory as 'I Like It' - and this is coming from someone who likes both songs! And sadly, just like that album, it's hard to avoid the feeling that some of the melodies on Eden are underweight in comparison with the blubbery bass and trap skitters, from the off-key tunes on 'Starbucks' to the weedy synths of 'Quiz' and 'Don't Post Me', to the very glittery DJ Mustard-esque tones on 'Fabric' and 'Typo'. Hell, I think both 'Cereal and Water' and 'PetSmart' are the strongest cuts here by a considerable margin, but even there the melodies feel a bit light and the vocal track just feels plastered on top instead of blended into the mix. Now granted, I'm prepared to give CupcakKe a lot more slack as an independent artist who doesn't have Atlantic's obscene budget, but with a little more time and refinement, to truly flesh out the mix and go beyond increasingly unbalanced trap grooves, that could be the added flair and versatility that could give CupcakKe's material some standout presence.

But as a whole... look, I like Eden and I like CupcakKe, but my concern that the dimensionality that made her such a distinctive and potent performer is being diluted is only growing stronger. She's got the talent and insight to be a more well-rounded artist and i don't want to see her become just known for one element of her personality, especially when there'll be a subset of fans and critics that'll only celebrate that sphere and could become a roadblock if that's all for which she's known... which is all the more frustrating because she's still really good in that lane! I just want to hear that balance held across a full album so she doesn't wind up as the artist who just makes sexually provocative bangers, especially as I know she has more to say, so while I'm giving this a light 7/10 and a recommendation, especially to CupcakKe fans, I do hope CupcakKe takes the time for more introspection. Again, it's all a balancing act, and I know she's plenty capable of holding it.

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