Cakes Da Killa – Svengali
If there was any moment in time for New Jersey born hip-house artist Cakes Da Killa to drop their anticipated sophomore effort, it’s right now. House music and its intersections with hip-hop have never been more prevalent to the discourse of the zeitgeist, and as one of the genre’s key party starters, Cakes deserves his seat at the table. Svengali follows his 2016 debut album Hedonism, placing a six year gap between the two projects that wasn’t actually intentional. Svengali, according to Cakes, has more or less been ready for the past three years. But the onset of lockdown left the artist questioning if 2019 was the right time to put an album that touched on heartbreak and difficult emotions, “I was already crying enough at home, I didn’t want to go and be crying in a booth,” he recently told The Fader. So instead, during this gap Cakes would establish himself as a club-ready act, rapping vapid and cunty over relentlessly sweaty, sledgehammering house beats across a litany of singles and the back-to-back Muvaland mixtapes. Svengali, by contrast, is a marked shift in energy and tone. Working with producer Sam Katz, for this album Cakes builds his house atop its historical roots in jazz, the beats immediately less domineering, smoother, and more subtle in flavour.
The sound of Svengali, spacious and often impossibly chic, provides more room for Cakes’s flow to pull focus. He’s a remarkably dexterous MC, bending his syllables and hat-trick lyrics to his will in a way that’s less staccato slave to the rhythm than we’re used to from him. Few artists can find this sort of fluidity in flow over house beats, and few even bother to try (see: Drake). But for Cakes, it’s organic. This works in Svengali’s favour, which for all accounts is a bit of a concept album. The songs are tied together by a narrative through line following a love affair from hookup to breakup, with Cakes taking us through the whirlwind of infatuation and all its messy peaks and valleys. We meet the titular object of Cakes’s affection in the VIP section on the title track, a bouncy house number that places us at the centre of the party where Cakes finds Svengali “looking at me like you want something to eat.” A trope pioneered by female rappers, in Cakes’s hands the flirty scuzziness of the dancefloor hookup track is refreshingly queered.
The laidback energy of the music really works in moments like this. Whereas similar tracks by the artist have leaned into hype and sleaze, on Svengali the experience of inhibitions lost through liquid courage are laced with fraught sensuality, genuine intrigue, and mild danger. “I know you’re touching me, but are you feeling me?”, the rapper asks, and this inquiry becomes essential to the overall arc of Svengali. Later on Ball And Chain, questions begin to arise; is this true love, or a hookup that just never went home? On the urgent Think Harder, Cakes sings unfiltered over a chaotic and rising beat in the face of his lover letting him go. It’s one of Svengali’s most riotous moments, and the desperation of fanning the flames of a romance quickly burning out permeates deeply. The sound speaks directly toward the emotional turbulence of the situation, and across most of Svengali there is a satisfying dialogue between the music and Cake’s rhymes that works in service of the storytelling.
Other narrative clues are provided across the album by a number of interludes and asides. Snippets of conversations, or voice memos from the morning after, introduce us to a supporting cast of characters and snatches of anecdotal confessions. There’s Carolina who went home with a chick that she met at the bar on the fateful night of Cakes and Svengali’s meet cute, there’s Svengali himself who confesses “I’ve seen you around, what are you drinking?” on Rabbit Hole. Essentially, the album plays out like one, big forward-moving operetta. This does make the length of its individual parts feel frustratingly brief at times, and the album is best experienced uninterrupted from top to bottom. But it’s a bold move for the artist to tackle his sophomore album with such conceptual aplomb, and at its best Svengali is a remarkably stylish effort. There’s a quiet sophistication to Cakes’s turbulent love saga, from the subdued yet considered production to his lyricism sharp as a cut-crease, and it’s something that gestures toward an artist quickly evolving into his prime.
Watch the music video for the title track from Svengali below.
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