Poetry beyond the beat: Cakes Da Killa’s sharp songwriting is portal to his inner world

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Above all, Cakes Da Killa wants to be received by the public as a songwriter. The features on ‘Black Sheep’ – Dawn Richard, Wuhryn Dumas and Stout – performed to lyrics written by Cakes, a collaboration that was affirming and surreal for him. “I know that in my core, I’m a songwriter, because it moves me so much to just hear someone interpret my lyrics. It makes me feel so fulfilled,” he says. He’d previously had opportunities to write for artists including MARINA (formerly Marina and The Diamonds), who approached his manager requesting a writing session. The collaboration wasn’t able to become fully realised but it was still a turning point for Cakes. “That was so amazing to me because not only did I feel like, ‘wow, somebody’s actually seeing me just for my talent’, it made me know that I’m good enough to be in those rooms. Those types of situations, and they’ve happened here and there through the years, those are always the best, because sometimes with the media, they make you feel like you’re only enough for a box, and then you’re just like: ‘No, bitch, I’m talented.’” Deciding to adapt his albums so that they’d also serve as a songwriting demonstration has helped him to find a way to share in a climate where getting into the songwriting game can be difficult, especially if you don’t live in LA.

Cakes is effusive about how the right collaborations can make a record. “They did their own ad libs and all that. I was singing off-key to this track that I’d written, and then they redid it, and put their spin on it. To hear Dawn sing my lyrics, to have Stout and Wuhryn just interpret a concept that I wrote is insane to witness,” he says. The matches made natural sense: Cakes had been a fan of Dawn, who came of age on the reality show Making the Band, since the beginning. She’d always been in his pop culture psyche. They crossed paths because they had the same management at the time, and right before the pandemic, they did a show together. Both artists, who were considered alternative (“because we’re Black artists who don’t make strictly hip hop or R&B, which is stupid, because all music is Black”), soon realised they had been mutual fans of each other. Another time, at a bar, post-lockdown and feeling fully outside, Cakes met Stout. “I’m obsessed with Stout’s voice, and I knew she would do exactly what I needed her to do on this record, because she has that churchy vocal. It’s not strained (which is also a cute way of singing), but for this record I needed a powerhouse. I need singing from the bottom of your feet.” Wuhryn also has that raw talent of “being able to sing down and riff down”. They met “in this community, which is why I’m so pro going out, because you never know who you would meet at a bar. If I hadn’t met Stout at that bar, we might not have been able to collaborate.”

Having previously said that rapping was initially his way of making fun of straight dudes, it’s plain to see that Cakes Da Killa is a genuinely funny person. The wordplay in his bars are fun with their risk, like in ‘Svengali’ when he raps: “I’m celibate because none of you f*ggots can top me”. Humour and truth overlap for Cakes. “See those little things with the celibacy metaphor? Those are the nerdy-isms in me that I think people don’t do in rap anymore,” he says. Citing influences such as Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott and Ludacris, he shares: “Technically, I could be considered a very serious rapper, people say I rap-rap. I’m serious about the art form, but I don’t take myself too seriously to be playful, because I’m not a conscious rapper. There’s still a little humour.”

In the New York episode of his two-part BBC radio documentary The future of hip-hop, Cakes went back to interview radio host Peter Rosenberg, 10 years after their Hot 97 interview on Ebro in the Morning. That interview focused on a lot of what Rosenberg referred to as “being ignorant for the purpose of learning”, and let’s just say little to no questions were asked about Cakes’ music and his poetic lyricism, his thoughts on the ballroom scene, or any of the landmark collaborations he’s had over the years. Overheard in the background of their BBC interview, just before the official conversation begins, you can pick up Cakes joking about tables turning (a stand-out theme in ‘Black Sheeps’’s ‘Ain’t Sh*t Sweet’ too!). It’s a palpable moment. “Ebro and Peter have always been very supportive of me in their own ways. I think people looking at that Hot 97 interview now kind of are like, ‘oh, my God, the Hot 97 interview was so bad’,” Cakes smiles. “I didn’t consider it that bad because that’s the type of conversations you would have with people who weren’t queer at that time. So to me, I’m just like, ‘OK! Let me break it down for you.’ But seeing him after that, for the BBC interview, it was very fulfilling because I was happy that I could be interviewing him and showing people, ‘look, I’m still here. Isn’t this so crazy?’”

‘Black Sheep’ is out via Young Art Records on March 22, pre-order it here

Tice Cin is a freelance journalist, follow her on Twitter

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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