Within a sexist industry, rappers Cupcakke and Rapsody find their voice inside its niches without quite breaking them.
Rapsody-LAILA’S WISDOM (Roc Nation, 2017)
Cupcakke-EPHORIZE (self-released, 2018)
Few roles are open to women in hip-hop: the gangsta tomboy who is “one of the boys,” often coded or openly lesbian (Da Brat, Dej Loaf, Young M.A.), the positive and socially conscious MC who risks falling into respectability politics (Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill), the sex goddess demanding that men pleasure her but seemingly using her music to cater to their fantasies (Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Nicki Minaj.) When a rapper like Angel Haze tried to forge her own path that didn’t follow any of the above, she developed a following through a series of promising mixtapes and pissed it away via a mediocre major label debut. The best two albums I’ve heard by female rappers in years, Rapsody’s LAILA’S WISDOM and Cupcakke’s EPHORIZE, don’t escape these niches. Rapsody falls into the second category and Cupcakke into the third. But they help expand the boundaries of what’s possible within them.
Cupcakke has released two mixtapes and three studio albums at the age of 20, with the latest, EPHORIZE, a contender for the admittedly tiny list of 2018’s best new music . She may have reached an audience beyond hardcore hip-hop fans with her feature on dance-pop singer Charli XCX’s “Lipgloss” last year. Lil Kim is obviously her biggest influence, and her lyrics are so sexually oriented that she has released albums called S.T.D and CUM CAKE. . Yet if one listens to EPHORIZE as a whole, Cupcakke comes across as a three-dimensional woman, even if her songs like “Duck Duck Goose,” “Post Pic” (on which she brags about offering inspiration to masturbating men), “Spoiled Milk Tiities” and “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” are thoroughly obsessed with sex.
For one thing, she’s willing to celebrate sexual freedom for everyone, not just herself. “Crayons” calls for LGBTQ rights in explicit terms. In the song’s chorus, she raps “Boy on boy, girl on girl/f**k the world, do what you like.” She also brings up the double standard that so many heterosexual men think women making out with each other is sexy, but guys doing the equivalent is gross and icky. Declaring that “transgenders are people so I’m-a treat ’em equal” should be common sense in 2018, but sadly, it isn’t. There may be an element of calculation to this song — it’s danceable enough not to even need a remix to be a hit in gay clubs — but it’s a huge improvement over tunes like “Born This Way” and “Same Love.” Lady Gaga and Macklemore didn’t explicitly salute gay men having anal sex and compare their ejaculations to a volcano! In fact, I haven’t heard a better denunciation of homophobia from within hip-hop besides Brockhampton’s “Junky.”
Cupcakke’s demands for equality go beyond asking guys to go down on her. “Single While Taken” is a detailed description of being stuck in a relationship with a man who ignores and mistreats her. “Exit” calls out cheating men. She attacks the notion that men who have casual sex are studs but women who do so are sluts. Lil Kim was the most talented member of the Notorious B.I.G.’S crew Junior M.A.F.I.A., but she simultaneously let Biggie beat her and ghostwrite her lyrics. Cupcakke is clearly her own woman; even if she works with male producers, they are not pulling her strings. On the centerpiece of EPHORIZE, she even second-guesses her whole act, including her sexualization of herself, with “Self Interview.” Her beats have an eccentric element, including pieces of dance music and hip-hop styles from around the world: reggaeton, New Orleans bounce, tropical house, and her native Chicago’s drill scene, with tasteful use of AutoTune. “Navel” features a quasi-Arabic flute a la Future’s “Mask Off.”
While Cupcakke is still self-releasing mixtapes and just starting to get national press, Rapsody has the support of Jay-Z (who signed her to his label) and Kendrick Lamar (who gave her a feature on his album TO PIMP A BUTTERLY and returns the favor on her “Power”). She got two Grammy nominations. It still didn’t push LAILA’S WISDOM past #120 on the Billboard top 200. Roc Nation wasn’t able to turn either her singles “Power” or “Sassy” into hits. Her album fits into a tradition of boom bap, with soulful production evoking A Tribe Called Quest. (Among others, Busta Rhymes, Black Thought and Musiq Soulchild also get features.)
Rapsody starts off expressing her politics on “Power,” suggesting skepticism about guns, pride in blackness and grabbing the power she wants in the title. When she says she’s in the top 5 percent of MCs, she’s right. “Nobody” returns to some of these socially conscious musings, but exposes her vulnerability and admits she likes the ignorant but energetic Waka Flocka Flame. “Pay Up” tells both sides of a relationship doomed by materialism, picking up where very early Kanye West songs like “All Falls Down” promised to go but his sexism kept him from following in good faith. “Chrome (Like Ooh)” is one of the album’s most musically unusual and attractive tracks, with organ over go-go percussion, and a time change halfway through. “Jesus Is Coming,” which tells the story of a murder from several characters’ viewpoints for six and a half minutes over a minimalist keyboard loop featuring a very faint drum machine, is the climax of LAILA’S WISDOM. It’s obviously designed as a showcase for her skill as a storyteller and ability to rap convincingly from a number of perspectives (Amber Navran, whose solo EP suggests a white version of Kelela, delivers the chorus, and a sample of a singer saying “”It’s time to go home soon” is also looped throughout the song.) The song’s final two minutes are both gentle and harrowing. Female backing vocals resembling Roberta Flack samples run through almost the entirety of LAILA’S WISDOM. The album is steeped in R&B, thanks to features from singers like BJ the Chicago Kid, Anderson.Paak and Navran.
There are points of contact between these two albums: both rappers could have written Rapsody’s attack on racist and sexist beauty standards, “Black & Ugly.” LAILA’S WISDOM deliberately harkens back to ’90s hip-hop — one songs paraphrases a De La Soul title — looking in turn to ’70s soul. If that sounds uncomfortably retro, listen to a Spotify playlist consisting of Post Malone, XXXTentacion, Lil Xan and Lil Pump and then return to the Fender Rhodes pianos that periodically salt her album. But the audience that would’ve enthusiastically greeted a contemporary equivalent of conscious classics like Black Star’s MOS DEF AND TALIB KWELI ARE BLACK STAR, Common’s LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and the Roots’ THINGS FALL APART may have given up on hip-hop in favor of a steady diet of Frank Ocean, SZA and Solange these days. If Cupcakke signed to a major label and had a hit single, I fear her audience would consist entirely of heterosexual guys attracted solely to her songs about sex, turning her hedonism into exploitation. But actually being on a major label hasn’t done much for Rapsody (or her labelmates Vic Mensa and Jay Electronica); talented indie female rappers like 3D Natee, Kate Tempest and Princess Nokia are destined to stay in the underground forever, most likely.
Within the space of six months, Cardi B has gone from releasing her first single to becoming a star whose presence on a song insures that other artists will have a hit with it, but given that she’s only released two solo singles, who knows where she’s headed? So far, she’s shown way more attitude than lyrical acumen, although her charisma and swagger are impressive. Nicki Minaj has had a frustrating career, alternating excellent singles — “Moment 4 Life,” “Super Bass,” “Beez in the Trap,” “Truffle Butter” — and equally impressive features on male artists’ songs — Kanye West’s “Monster,” Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad,” Drake’s “Make Me Proud,” Lil Uzi Vert’s “The Way Life Goes” — with weak attempts at R&B/pop crossover hits. Rhianna’s dynamite flow on N.E.R.D’s “Lemon” was one of 2017’s few non-Cardi B-related highlights in mainstream hip-hop for women, and she’s not even a full-time rapper. The music industry seems to have almost no space for female rappers; that may be part of the reason artists like Jhene Aiko and Kelela aren’t pursuing careers within hip-hop. But there’s more talent where Cupcakke and Rapsody came from. Will anyone get to hear it, and will the next generation of female rappers get to break out from the confines of genre/gender roles? As good as LAILA’S WISDOM and EPHORIZE are, they stretch the boundaries of what female MCs are expected to do without quite demolishing them.