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Cakes Da Killa’s Big Year: How the Underground Rap Sensation Hypnotized Fans with ‘Svengali’

todayDecember 22, 2022

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As 2022 draws to a close, Billboard Pride is taking a look back at some the queer indie artists who saw their stars rise over the last 12 months. Below, NYC rap veteran Cakes Da Killa breaks down his big year.

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Last summer, multiple publications declared that “house music was back,” thanks to superstars like Beyoncé and Drake infusing their new music with its chunky synths and four-on-the-floor drum patterns. For Cakes Da Killa, however, the genre never went anywhere. When asked how aware he was of the “revival” taking place, he quips, “Not at all. Too drunk to pay attention.”

Cakes was also too busy, focusing on his own career this year — after almost a decade of underground success, the NYC rap vet used his 2022 to show the world his versatility and preeminent songwriting with Svengali. Released in October through his new label home Young Arts, the long-awaited second LP proved to be a turning point in Cakes’ career — and one he’s eager to keep building on.

But as the rapper tells Billboard over Zoom, Svengali had been in the works since 2018, and got shelved since the outset of the pandemic in 2020. “It didn’t seem like the time [to release it],” Cakes explains. “I knew I wanted to be a creative person through the pandemic, but I didn’t want to drop a full body of work, like an album, during that time. … But then it was a situation where I had been sitting on this project for four years — this s–t was coming out regardless.”

For Cakes (born Rashard Bradshaw), persevering through adverse release conditions had already been the story of his entire career. Coming up during “the SoundCloud generation,” as he calls it, Cakes gained steam across various internet platforms with the release of his Easy Bake Oven mixtape in 2011. Joining the likes of Mykki Blanco and Le1f, Cakes became a point of fascination for media figures around the U.S., as an openly gay rapper leading the way towards greater visibility.

It’s a theme that continued throughout Cakes’ career — no matter what independent label he signed with or what kind of sound he was making, his sexuality had become the inextricable focal point of his public image, which made attempts to seek out the attention of major labels more difficult. “When I was coming out as an artist, the label system was not prepared for queer artists, so there was no option in the first place — it was like, ‘You’re an independent artist because you’re weird,’” he says.  

When the pandemic hit, Cakes had a decision to make — he had crafted a new album that would potentially help re-contextualize his artistic contribution to rap, but that album was also rife with sorrowful themes. Ultimately, the world “had enough of all of that,” he says.

Instead, Cakes unveiled his Muvaland mixtape series with producer Proper Villains as he left his home in New York to move to Atlanta. Released in two volumes throughout the pandemic via HE.SHE.THEY, the sweltering club project saw Cakes leaning into his house roots with wild abandon.

Gaining newfound attention thanks to his booming pandemic club single “Don Dada” and still refining the sound of Svengali with producer Sam Katz, Cakes started 2022 with a big change when he signed an album deal with TOKiMONSTA‘s label, Young Arts Records. By working with a label run by a fellow artist, Cakes says he could see the difference from his past label experiences clearly. “She has this different type of perspective on how to run things, which I appreciate — it’s very artist-focused,” he explains. “The record deal was signed because they genuinely loved what I was doing and what I was making.”

With a renewed outlook on his place in the industry, Cakes looked at his second album and decided, as he puts it “‘F–k it, let’s put it out.’” On Oct. 28, the world was introduced to the world of Svengali, a hypnotic, genre-fused project that saw Cakes take a sharp left turn with his sound — the elements of his hip-house roots remained intact, now bolstered by a darker ambient noise around it.

“Sonically, what me and Sam produced was something that combined a lot of the sounds I listen to on the day to day — that’s jazz, neo-soul, R&B and house music — and the product is something that is so deeply me,” he says. “Muvaland is this very sugar-coated, high fructose corn syrup project, while Svengali is much more grown and refined.”

Cakes’ efforts didn’t go unnoticed: Svengali quickly earned critical acclaim, with Pitchfork writing that the album “feels like a milestone he’s been working toward for years,” and calling Cakes ” a bandleader of the jazz era he reveres, putting on for the divas and icons of his time.” While the album didn’t gain any instant success on platforms like YouTube or TikTok, the rapper says he’s watched his streaming numbers steadily rise since the project’s release.

As the topic of internet virality comes up, Cakes quickly becomes uncomfortable. Yes, he has a TikTok account that he posts on sporadically, and yes, he acknowledges that, without platforms like SoundCloud or Tumblr, his career likely wouldn’t exist. But when it comes to the dominance of TikTok in the current music market, Cakes doesn’t feel great about what it means for artists.

“It’s just so performative, to me,” he says with a sigh. “Historically speaking, that performative thing kind of feels like minstrel shows to me, to be real. I don’t think everyone has that intention, nor do I think it’s the intention of the app. But the connotation that it has — leaning choreography and dancing to get people to like you — doesn’t sit well with me.”

Throughout the conversation, Cakes makes it clear that success will happen on his own terms, not because of a viral trend he capitalized on or a major label deal that got him more radio airplay. He’s hustled before, and he’s happy to hustle again. “I’ve always been a hard worker and somebody who was a go getter,” he explains. “But when the pandemic happened, that was like, ‘The time is now, do what you wanna do. And if you’re gonna do it, make a product that you’re completely in love with. If it’s fab, people will like it.’”

That doesn’t mean he can’t dream, though — Cakes hopes to see the songs off of his upcoming summer project on the Billboard dance charts soon. More importantly, he hopes that his artistic renaissance over the last year allows him to finally be seen as a once-in-a-generation artist.

“I’m just over here trying to cement myself as somebody bigger than the ‘queer rap’ label that the media has placed on me,” he explains. “I’m trying to be considered as a dope songwriter and artist first.”

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