A few years ago, Cakes Da Killa felt trapped. The Atlanta-via-NYC rapper and producer had released a few acclaimed mixtapes, each showcasing his blooming talent as a lyricist and stylist. But, no matter how dexterous, technical or transgressive his music, people always seemed to come back to one thing: “I was getting pigeonholed to just being known as a gay rapper,” he says, speaking via video from Montreal. “I felt my own image was overshadowing the actual music.”
His solution was simple – let them say what they want, and keep making some of the most underrated and outright fun underground rap going. “I decided that if this was how it’s going to be, I should just make music that I love completely,” he says. “Not just me trying to be marketable, because at the end of the day, I would always be known as ‘the gay rapper’.”
He still loved the music he had been making previously – including 2013’s acclaimed mixtape The Eulogy and his 2016 debut album Hedonism. But his second album Svengali, he says, feels more true to the breadth of his taste, touching on house, jazz and electronica in a way that feels reminiscent of chilly Y2K lounge music as well as the New York club scenes that Cakes came up in. “A lot of my original work was solely focused on hip-hop, which was kind of a disservice to me, because I was neglecting the styles that influenced me.”
Cakes was born Rashard Bradshaw in New Jersey in 1990. As a kid, he was more into poetry than music, and he didn’t consider rapping until he was in high school. Even then, he says his rapping began as a joke. “In my mind, growing up, you couldn’t fathom being a gay, feminine, effeminate person rapping,” he says. He and his friends would freestyle in the cafeteria, in part just to get “attention and make fun of straight people” who thought someone like him wouldn’t be able to spit. “It was like, ‘Oh, you don’t think I can’t do that? I can do that. And I can do it better than you.’”
In college, Cakes began rapping in his dorm room “out of boredom”. Soon enough, people began asking him to rap on their songs. He still didn’t see it as a viable career option, but it proved good enough reason to start going to New York. When it became clear that rapping was an easy way to bypass club lines and get free drinks, he embraced it and moved to the city.
At that point in the late 2000s and early 2010s, New York’s young queer party scene was booming. Cakes was getting invited to parties run by legendary nightlife doyennes Susanne Bartsch and Ladyfag, and meeting future vanguards of New York’s young, Black, queer creative scene such as Telfar Clemens (“when the first bags came out”) and Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver. “It felt like the Harlem Renaissance – we all were kind of together in this weirdo community in Brooklyn. I got to meet a lot of different artists, like the House of Ladosha and Mykki Blanco and Le1f,” he says. “That moment really influenced my love of nightlife and reinforced a lot of my taste.”
Dexterity always was, and still is, important to Cakes – when he was coming up, trial by fire was still the main entry into any kind of rap scene. Now, he says, technical skills don’t seem as important. “A lot of artists now – I don’t want to say they have it easier, because I don’t know everyone’s story, but I feel like the bar is low, which is … true. When I came out, people were already against me: ‘You can’t do this, you’re gay,’” he says. “I knew I had to be on a certain level to get over those conversations. Now it’s like people don’t even freestyle any more – they just put out a viral song and then they’re a rapper.”
Although Cakes’ music has always flirted with nightlife sounds, Svengali is a capital-C club record, destined for sweaty dancefloors and softly lit 3am lofts. It charts romantic entanglements with a kinetic sense of energy and captures the unique excitement of meeting someone at a bar and taking them home. Sip of My Sip, a collaboration with rising rapper Sevndeep, embodies the album’s sensibility, turning dancefloor body language (“He got his hands on my hip / He want a sip of my sip”) into a hypnotic house-rap hook.
Flirtation isn’t the album’s be-all and end-all: Svengali is a concept record that charts a single romance from beginning to end, essentially a composite of a handful of failed relationships. “I wasn’t necessarily aiming to have an Adele moment,” he says. Many songs, such as Ball & Chain, showcase a level of domestic need and desire that Cakes hasn’t shown on record before: “I need somebody real who could deal / I could build with / Keep it one hundred / Call me out on my bullshit,” he raps.
“As I was writing the record, it [felt] like these men that I was dealing with were these svengali-type characters that were exploiting me or taking advantage of me,” he says. As he continued work on the album, he realised that the relationships he was using for inspiration weren’t necessarily as black-and-white as he thought. “Taking accountability for my own shit, I was like, ‘Was the svengali me the whole time?’ There’s no good and bad cops in love – you know, love is a battlefield.”
All that soul-searching is set to coy, humid, expensive-sounding house, of an admittedly lighter shade than what appeared on Cakes’ pandemic-era Muvaland EPs (two records with producer Proper Villains that foregrounded pounding hip-house and vogue tracks). As ever, Cakes was ahead of the curve – a year later, Beyoncé and Drake brought that sound to the masses, and not without controversy.
“I don’t blame mainstream artists for getting inspired by alternative culture, because they need interesting things to talk about,” he says. “I feel like as Black artists, it’s really important to have someone on Beyoncé’s level elevate what people describe as a subculture – because to me, it’s not a subculture, it’s my culture. I just wish consumers would then do their research to look at the pioneers and the people who have been doing it already. Ballroom and drag are not buzzwords or trend pieces, these are actually lifestyles – so people should respect it accordingly.”
For Cakes, there are bigger things at stake with Svengali than trend-chasing. “I think it’s important that we showcase Black queer love in different angles and different lights, and show what actually happens in queer life. I feel like the media makes it a two-dimensional thing – you know, Black man, white lover,” he says. “I just wanted to showcase a little glimpse of what I actually deal with in the real world – being a Black man that dates and loves on Black men.”
Svengali is out now