In 1984, years before the internet would make “virality" a commonplace noun, Lolita Shanté Gooden (soon to be known as the rapper Roxanne Shanté), then all of 14, was walking down the streets of Queens, New York, to do her mother’s laundry when she quite accidentally became a hip hop star. A local producer stopped her and asked whether she would rap over some beats from a contemporary song, Roxanne Roxanne (originally recorded by UTFO, an old-school rap group from Brooklyn), about a girl who did not respond to a guy’s overtures. In her version, Gooden laid down rhymes from the perspective of the girl. Roxanne’s Revenge, the resulting song, taped in a single take, became a sensation and made Shanté a hip hop legend.

Set in the early days of hip hop, Roxanne Roxanne, the bio-film on Shanté that was released on Netflix last week, is a semi-fictionalized account of the rapper’s meteoric success, but also of her battle to make things work in a hip hop culture that was, and still is, notoriously sexist and weighted brutally against women. Three decades later, things haven’t changed. In fact, they’ve gotten worse. When Shanté was trying to make it as an emcee in local “rhyming battles", where she would often be pitted against men, sexism and male dominance were the norm in the business of the fledgling hip hop industry, but at least this hadn’t crept into the songs. That happened a bit later, with the advent of “gangsta rap", and, consequently, “pimp rap", immensely popular subgenres that not only broke into the mainstream music charts but also routinely used crass depictions of women to do so.

As rap found commercial success—particularly among suburban white audiences in the US—and drugs, money and hedonism became the pervasive hallmarks of the hip hop culture, it wasn’t long before those very themes crept into the lyrics of male rappers. If you listen to rap artists from the 1990s onwards, it’s as if it was de rigueur to demean, degrade and objectify women, usually in the most vulgar terms. True, women rappers also emerged during that era, but many, such as Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, set themselves in the mould of the subservient and sexually promiscuous image of the women that the male rap stars of the time sang about. Those that did not flaunt sexual overtness over their creative talent, such as Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, or MC Lyte, found critical acclaim—but they were few in number.

Mainstream hip hop still continues to be a largely male world where even top-flight women rappers—for instance, Nicki Minaj or Cardi B—have to play second fiddle to the men. That’s why when I first heard a song by CupcakKe, I immediately sat up and took note. It was a YouTube video called Deepthroat that was posted in 2015 when she was still a teenager, and leaves little (from the title onwards) to the imagination. That, and another video, Vagina, also posted in 2015, went viral, and, quite like Shanté in the 1980s, CupcakKe became a sensation on the hip hop scene. But that’s where the similarities end. In Roxanne Roxanne, before entering a rhyming battle, a young Shanté asks her impoverished single mother whether she can curse and her mom says she doesn’t care what she does as long as she wins the $50 that is at stake. Those were still hip hop’s coy days. I’m not sure I can reproduce any of the lyrics of CupcakKe’s Deepthroat or Vagina here in Lounge (I’m not taking a chance); and I’ll also refrain from offering a description of the videos (readers can check them out voluntarily if they want).

CupcakKe (born Elizabeth Eden Harris), 20, is a rapper from Chicago who, after the internet virality of her initial videos (Deepthroat has got nearly 24 million views) and five albums, including a 2016 mix tape called Cum Cake, has become one of hip hop’s latest superstars. Much of her oeuvre is what you would likely label as erotica, and many of her songs scream boldly (and wittily) about the female body, the act of sex, and sexual pleasure, but also trauma, abuse, LGBTQ+ issues, and paedophilia. On social media (her Twitter name is Marilyn MonHoe @cupcaKKe_rapper), the proudly plus-size rapper is as provocative as she is with her song lyrics but also offers the occasional critique (“magazines nowadays just don’t embrace all forms of beauty"). Her burgeoning number of fans (who call themselves “slurpers") lap up her albums, and the critics, including the mainstream Rolling Stone, have been bowled over more than once. Cum Cake featured on the magazine’s list of “Best Rap Albums", and, in 2017, another one, Queen Elizabitch, also found a place on that year’s list.

CupcakKe’s explicit lyrics are not for the prudish or those faint of heart. My playlist of her songs is mainly piped in through the headphones rather than blasted on the stereo at home. But lewdness and over-the-top references to sex apart, her songs are also angry ones about violence, social injustice, and gender issues. And those could emerge as directions her music could move towards in future. Her latest album, Ephorize, which came out early this year, marks that sort of an evolution. It is slickly produced, with beats that range from old-school hip hop to world music and avant-garde pop, it showcases CupcakKe’s witty one-liners and ultra-raunchy attitude, but also introspects and touches upon serious issues. Ephorize is clearly her best work till date and provides ample proof of why this is one rap emcee you have to keep your eyes—and ears—on.

The lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Deepthroat’ by CupcakKe from ‘Cum Cake’

2. ‘33rd’ by CupcakKe from ‘Queen Elizabitch’

3. ‘Mistress’ by CupcakKe from ‘Audacious’

4. ‘LGBT’ by CupcakKe from ‘Audacious’

5. ‘Duck Duck Goose’ by CupcakKe from ‘Ephorize’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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