Gotta Go Hard
CupcakKe’s sex positive rhymes and explicit tweets commanded the internet’s attention before a harrowing experience made her want to leave it all behind. Armed with a fresh outlook and independent grind, the Chicago rapper is on a path of self-built success.
Interview: Georgette Cline
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
CupcakKe is happy to be alive. There was a time when she thought otherwise. While her rap moniker celebrates the ever-popular confection and term of endearment, life was anything but sweet for the MC three years ago. CupcakKe admittedly lost $700,000 due to a gambling addiction in 2018. Her rhymes on the 2020 track “Lawd Jesus” are straight reality: “I just lost $700K off of nothin’ but gamblin’/I was sick and got fried, but I had to fight all my demons/That shit was real challengin’.” A year later, the Chicago rapper was hospitalized after sending a tweet that she was “about to commit suicide.” Depression had consumed CupcakKe for a long time, which she candidly shared in the past. A YouTube video a friend showed her about judgment day helped bring on CupcakKe’s suicidal thoughts, and prompted her tweet. Lizzo, Iggy Azalea, pop singer Charli XCX and comedian Kathy Griffin sent their own tweets voicing concern for CupcakKe.
What followed was another shock to her supporters. In September of 2019, CupcakKe announced her retirement in an Instagram Live video she filmed from a hotel room in Orlando, Fla. while on tour. In that same video, she expressed her blunt rhymes reveling in sex were corrupting the youth. Despite all the attention, streams for six projects and even more loosies, and money she was receiving for her music, the rhymer was determined to walk away from everything. She even scrubbed the internet of some of the multimillion-viewed, bawdy music videos that were her claim to fame.
“That was the hardest part of my life,” CupcakKe, 24, admits while reflecting on that disheartening time period during a Zoom call this past July. “I was like, I don’t know, I want to end it all. I feel like, I’m going to hell, why wait on it? Let’s just get it over with, you know? ’CauseI felt I really did that. I really, really did that. I beat myself up about it a lot. So, that’s when I was like, let’s change the shows, let’s start doing better.”
Nearly two years after those tribulations, CupcakKe has a renewed sense of self. She didn’t drop the mic forever and her mental glow up is real. “Mental health is important,” she says. “It’s very, very, very fuckin’ important. Like, people don’t understand at all.” As she sits in a house in Phoenix for a TV appearance—decked out in full glam, cascading braids, hoop earrings the size of a baby’s face and a white button-down shirt draping off her shoulder to showcase a chest full of tattoos—the energy behind the smile she radiates is palpable. The sign of a young Black woman who has recognized her power within. It’s summer, and CupcakKe is currently on the West Coast filming episodes of the forthcoming reality competition show Hot Haus, an LGBTQ+ platform centered on queer sex workers and sex-positive content creators. The show, which she’s hosting alongside I Love New York star Tiffany Pollard, premieres on OutTV in November.
The self-proclaimed “Marilyn MonHOE” is also crafting her fifth studio album, scheduled to arrive this fall. While she’s keeping the title a secret for now—CupcakKe usually welcomes fans to help name her albums during chats in private social media DMs—the end result will highlight the puissance of her voice, lethal pen, titillating lyrics and plenty of fiery bars championing women empowerment and silencing detractors. For day-one CupcakKe stans, the audacious, sexually charged lines will have their place. She’s built a career off wholly embracing her sexuality and talent, but plans to do things a little differently this time. An important constant in her career remains: she’s still an independent artist after all these years.
It’s been almost a decade since CupcakKe first grabbed attention with the song “Gold Digger” back in 2012. She was 15, and the track, which she released on YouTube and has since been deleted, showed early signs of her potential as a budding performer. The clean music the then-rap neophyte dropped eventually turned to more explicit, provocative bars with “Vagina” in late 2015, and “Deepthroat” followed that same year. The influence of Khia’s 2002 hit “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” inspired CupcakKe’s direction. “Hump me, fuck me/Daddy, better make me choke (You better)/Hump me, fuck me/My tunnel loves to deep throat (It do),” CupcakKe raps on “Deepthroat,” now at over 51 million YouTube views and 54 million Spotify streams. “I knew I wanted the second song to be great, but I didn’t know it would be greater than the first,” she recalls. “It was really wild.” “Deepthroat” was the first gold record achievement for her livelihood, certified earlier this year.
Growing up in the church and being homeless to building an indie career while dealing with personal strife will make you grateful for every win, big or small. Raised by a single mother—CupcakKe’s father is a pastor who the rapper met for the first time years ago after recognizing him while walking down the street—CupcakKe, born Elizabeth Eden Harris, was accustomed to having little resources but flexing what she did have. Home was nearby Chicago’s notorious Parkway Gardens area, neighborhood of King Von and Chief Keef, the latter of which she went to school with. “He was the coolest and popular dude in the school at his young age,” she conveys.
CupcakKe once lived in the now-demolished Calumet housing complex, down the street from the infamous O-Block. At the age of 10, she and her mom were evicted from their home due to owning a dog they weren’t permitted to have. Her mom, Lynn, also lost her job around the same time. “It was a struggle because going to school during them years, it kinda fucked up my childhood, I’m not gonna lie,” admits CupcakKe, who has lived in almost every shelter in Chi-Town before she began rapping. “Just a little bit because we’ll go to these shelters and I’ll be so embarrassed to walk home because I’ll know that the school I go to is like right by the shelter.” Her 2018 flute-driven track “Wisdom Teeth” is an autobiographical discourse: “Excuse my ratchet, I remember 20 degrees without no jacket/Heatin’ up with matches.”
Back in those days, CupcakKe found comfort in her mother’s extensive CD collection, some of the few possessions that made it to every shelter they lived in. 50 Cent, Foxy Brown, Trina, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna were among the selections. “I think that’s how I fell in love with music,” remembers CupcakKe, who names 50, Khia and DMX as hip-hop inspirations. “That was my escape.” So was poetry, which she’d perform in church at age 14. She was inspired to go a step further after a fellow churchgoer urged her to flip her poems into rhymes to make a profit. “Gold Digger”—“so weird” and “terrible” according to CupcakKe—was the first fruit of her lyrical seeds. Even with limited funds, her mom supported her daughter’s pursuit to get to the bag, giving CupcakKe the last $50 she had to buy studio time. After experiencing bullying in the 10th grade as a result of her limited wardrobe back then, CupcakKe quit school, got a job washing hair at a salon and pursued a rap career at 16.
“She’s always been positive,” CupcakKe’s mom says of her rapping daughter’s tenacious spirit. She also has two brothers. “Since she was 10, she said, ‘No, mom, I don’t want to be like the average female. I want to be rich.’ I just looked at her like, ‘What? You’re 10 years old.’ I’ve always called her my trooper.”
That resilient attitude has seeped into CupcakKe’s worth ethic. Her catalog of music includes mixtapes Cum Cake and S.T.D (Shelters to the Deltas), plus albums Audacious, Queen Elizabitch, Ephorize and Eden, all released in a span of two years, starting in 2016. She’s equal parts provocateur, introspective ace and bewitching songwriter. One minute, she’s playfully moaning about giving fellatio then has a machine gun-style intensity permeating her bars the next. The sex kitten raunch in both her rhymes and tweets was initially used as a vehicle to drive fans to her music, and have them stay for the pièce de résistance. Her four-part “Reality” series pays homage to her poetry roots, rapping a cappella on the struggles she’s endured. The MC is toying around with the idea of doing a “Pt. 5” on her upcoming album. “Grilling N****s,” produced by Fantom, serves as a lyrical onslaught over a JAWS theme-inspired beat, a warning that “she’s killing bitches with the pencil.” The visual is full-on camp, grinding up a guy’s guts and throwing them on the grill. “How to Rob (Remix),” a spin on 50 Cent’s classic 1999 track, earned her viral fame again last December for going at 24 artists including Lil Baby, Megan Thee Stallion and 6ix9ine.
“Her rapping skills are like, next level,” says Fantom, a Los Angeles-based producer who’s tapped in with CupcakKe for a handful of songs since 2019, including recent releases “Discounts” and “Huhhhhh.” “I think she’s like, one of the best rappers out right now. It’s cool that she really goes in with the bars and the speed of her flow. Most rappers can’t really do that. Her style is specific. She kinda knows what she’s looking for.”
Six projects in as an indie artist makes CupcakKe an expert in a sense. Chance The Rapper is her indie icon while TuneCore is her preferred digital distribution platform, where she uploads all her own music. “I don’t have to pay nobody but the IRS, baby,” CupcakKe explains of why she chooses to forgo the major label machine. “Uncle Sam is the only one that gets a cut. That’s a good part about being independent.” She’s met with Atlantic Records and Capitol Records, among others, but has declined to take up any labels on their offers. Her freedom comes first. Plus, a staunch fan base has helped her maintain a steady position in the game, like when she reportedly became the first Black independent rapper to achieve a No. 1 on iTunes U.S. in all genres for “Discounts” last year. A claim she also made on Twitter.
Rewarding many of those devotees is a regular occurrence. She pays their bills in real time on social media. CupcakKe’s gambling addiction, which she claims led to her being banned from casinos across the U.S., is what caused her altruism. “I just looked at it like God was testing me,” she discloses. “So, I was like, when I get my money back right, it’s on and poppin’… I could help the world.” One of her fans was blessed with $35,000.
While she’s sharing her wealth, CupcakKe has also made an effort to pull back from posting wild remarks on social media. Fresh ’fit pics are her ether of choice as a fashion killa. She’s also adopted the it’s-not-what-you-say-it’s-how-you-say-it ethos in her music. Don’t forget, CupcakKe’s freakified bangers came before the likes of Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and City Girls were doing it.
“I don’t think I get the flowers I deserve, but that’s another story for another day,” she remarks. “I’m in great spirits, so I can’t complain. What’s made for me is always gon’ be for me, like, no one can take that away from me.”
She’s publicly praised women in rap, namely Nicki Minaj, her dream collaboration, and Doja Cat, but also openly confessed that “female rap is boring.” “Here’s the thing, I’m gon’ say this—now I hope I don’t get dragged for it—but female rap, it’s important to stick together, but at the same time, not too much. Support each other, but keep it interesting, because I feel like it’s too much female, you know, like, ‘This is my best friend, totally. So, if we get on a verse together like, am I going to destroy my best friend?’ No, best friend or not, baby, if you get on a song with me, you are going to get violated. You better come with it. I’m skating on that muthafucka.”
Expect the verbal pirouettes on her forthcoming album to stick like an Olympic champion. CupcakKe’s prepared to intrigue. “I’m excited. The fact that I’m breathing to even put a fuckin’ project together again,” she declares matter-of-factly. “We are losing so many people. So, I’m just happy to be alive, you know? To actually hear from someone who used to be suicidal to say, ‘I’m happy to be alive,’ is like, a big, big step.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide or contemplating self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit Speakingofsuicide.com for additional resources.
Check out more from XXL magazine's Fall 2021 issue when it hits newsstands in October 2021, including our cover story with Tyler, The Creator, Lil Nas X's battle for respect in hip-hop, Wale talks about his new album, Folarin 2, find out more about Maxo Kream in Doin' Lines, Bia reflects on how far she's come in her career after "Whole Lotta Money" success, BMF actor Da'Vinchi talks rap music in Hip-Hop Junkie, Isaiah Rashad keeps it real about his faith, SoFaygo discusses signing to Travis Scott's Cactus Jack label and more.