What you gon’ do in the next two minutes?” Elizabeth Harris, the unsigned 20-year-old rapper better known as CupcakKe, asks, thrillingly, at the end of “2 Minutes,” the first song on her latest album, Ephorize. It’s Harris’s third studio album and by far her best; what’s clearest here is her growth as a musician—from a teenage rapper whose viral hit, “Deepthroat,” is about exactly what you might think (and twice as explicit), to an artist who’s capable of moving introspection (“Self Interview”) and savagely inventive lines (see “Cartoons,” among many possible examples). It goes without saying that Harris can still pull off a song like “Duck Duck Goose,” which is about playing the children’s game, but with dicks.
Harris grew up in Chicago’s Parkway Gardens—the same neighborhood that her drill-music peer Chief Keef hails from—and had a rough childhood, spending time in the city’s homeless shelters for nearly four years, starting when she was just 7 years old. Some of this shows up in her earlier music: Cuts from her 2016 album Cum Cake—including “Pedophile,” about a relationship between an underage woman and a man “about 10” years older, and “Reality, Pt. 2” (“I say people barely eating so I thank God for this bite / No light, food or gas but yeah I thank God for them nights”)—allude to much darker times.
On Ephorize, the subjects are no less personal but somehow feel more confessional, like the following lines from “Self Interview”: “Nothin’ tacky ‘bout my Acnique, the inside the most attractin’ / Hair ain’t really that nappy, if I stop comparin’ it to Yaki / Been walked over so much, now when I meet someone, I act rude / They always ask if my tats hurt, but the hurt why I got tattoos.” On “Single While Taken,” Harris tracks the pain of being with someone, and in it, her eye for detail is unmatched:
All you hear is “I” like you ‘bout to start darin’
None of this the same like it was in the past
I want you to pay attention, they want you to pay the tab
Convincin’ myself like, “It ain’t that bad”
See a problem and skip over it like a YouTube ad
I confront you with some shit, you say, “It ain’t that deep”
Yeah, it ain’t that deep until a bitch go and cheat
You gotta fix this, you actin’ fishy like fish sticks
You buggin’ like bugs surroundin’ at picnics
Don’t take this to heart but we losin’ our spark
You only come through at night like glow-in-the-dark
“Single While Taken” is the penultimate track, but after listening to the album several times, I wonder if, in fact, it’s the first half of the relationship described in “Exit,” seven tracks earlier:
My best friend said she saw you at the Best Western
If that wasn’t you then why your name was checked in?
I thought maybe by now you would have your shit together
I can stand alone if on the throne we cannot sit together
Yeah you say you love me but you show different ways
Fuck what you say, you made it clearer than an icing on glaze
Nights after the night, the side pillow is alone
When yo’ ass home it still feel like you gone
Who hasn’t felt a version of this? The two songs capture that particular kind of pain that comes with realizing that something about your relationship is off, has gone suddenly sour—and also realizing that it’s neither your fault nor something you can control. Harris confronts those feelings of anger and frustration, acknowledging why they can be particularly pernicious while understanding just how magnetic the person who betrayed you can still be. As she raps in the second verse of “Exit”: “My mind telling me go but my heart telling me stay / 30 seconds I love you, the other 30 I hate / 2 could play the game but lemme show you my way / 365 contacts, new number every day.” That doesn’t help, of course: “I walk away, I won’t be back, the next day, I’m on your lap,” Harris admits in “Single While Taken.”
“Cartoons,” the album’s standout track, is both an ode to her childhood and a screed of joking boasts. The chorus goes: “If I see carats like Bugs Bunny / I’m Batman, robbin’ for the money / Strip her, bare feet like The Flintstones / Make a Tom and Jerry whole way home / I’m a snack so I attract Scooby Doos.” And in the midst of all this chaos, there’s joy: Harris is having a great time. (The best lyric of 2018 so far might be when she raps about reading Goodnight Moon while in the middle of a sex act.) On “Wisdom Teeth,” Harris trades her boasts for guidance to young men, which turns out to be about as absurdist an advice column as you’d expect: “I eat ramen noodles just to humble myself / I don’t change off wealth / Niggas on the ‘Gram finding these expensive-ass belts / That’s a life they couldn’t help.”
Those same themes show up in Harris’s earlier work. On Queen Elizabitch, for example, which came out last March, there’s a glimpse of the CupcakKe of Ephorize: The album is similarly paced, yo-yoing from the autobiographical and street social commentary of “Scraps” to the straight pop of “33rd” and the XXX banger “Cpr,” which shares nothing with the medical procedure but a name. As Pitchfork’s Briana Younger noted at the time, “Women can, at once, be shameless and vulnerable, sexy and brilliant—the former doesn’t cheapen the latter.” The same month Queen Elizabitch was released, Harris hopped on a track with English pop star Charli XCX for her mixtape Number 1 Angel; titled “Lipgloss,” the effort was both sexy and brilliant, and brought Harris’s name to a huge new audience, with the tape ending up on more than a few critics’ year-end lists. Ephorize takes Harris’s fire and shapes it into a more enduring form.
The transition from the soul searching in “Self Interview” to the delighted raunchiness of “Cartoons” and “Duck Duck Goose” can be somewhat jarring. But Harris is a nimble enough rapper to flit between modes and styles, and Ephorize’s variegated nature lets her flow over all kinds of production, with predictably exciting results. In nearly every song, you can hear shades of trap, drill, bounce, and reggaeton, with Harris’s voice making the whole thing hang together. I can’t help but wonder, however, what a more concentrated effort would sound like, or what a CupcakKe album will be when Harris is less focused on making a place for herself in mainstream rap. More than anything, Ephorize is a showcase of what Harris can do now, as well as a tantalizing glimpse of what she might be able to achieve in the future.
By turns exhilarating and free and daring, Ephorize is clearly Harris’s best album yet—the sonic equivalent of seeing a geyser erupt. There’s an undeniable joy to it as well: Harris is at her best when she’s asking for what she wants, whether that’s sex or love or a space in hip-hop, for herself and women like her.