FEATURE: Spotlight: Rapsody





ALL PHOTOS/IMAGES: Rapsody/Getty Images



THIS year has seen two incredible albums come out…

that puts important black figures under the microscope. I have talked a lot about Jamila Woods and her album, LEGACY! LEGACY!, and its phenomenal sound – Woods focused on a different pioneering figure in each song. On Eve, Rapsody celebrated and remembers powerful and inspiring black women. I will look back at Rapsody’s career and her incredible albums but, to start, it is worth looking back at the start. Her career started at North Carolina State University where she was a part of the H20 collective and Kooley High group. In spite of the fact she had never rapped before, she showed natural flair and gift. By 2008, she launched her career and signed with 9th Wonder’s It’s a Wonderful World Music Group. She put out The Summer Sessions EP with Kooley High in 2008, but it was not until 2010 that she got her first real breakthrough – the Return of the B-Girl mixtape was Rapsody’s moment in the spotlight. Her celebrated mixtapes - Thank H.E.R. Now (2011) and For Everything (2011) – gained her some traction but it was her debut album, The Idea of Beautiful, that took her up another level. Featuring guests such as Big Rube, Raheem DeVaughn; Ab-Soul, Childish Gambino; GQ and Nomsa Mazwai, The Idea of Beautiful is a busy and sensational work that everyone needs to hear! It gathered some positive reviews and, as Rap Reviews discussed, Rapsody instantly stepped into a league of her own:

Rapsody's success on "The Idea of Beautiful" is the fact she's an inspired writer who can convey the thoughts of her beautiful mind while not leaving the listener feeling left behind. Some songs are melancholy like the Eric G laced "Precious Wings," but she doesn't stay in sadness or drown you with sorrow.

Some songs are intense overwhelming odes to love's addiction like "Come Home" featuring Rocki Evans, but she's not spinning an album of romance novels. She's a storyteller, but she can team with 9th, Raheem DeVaugn and Ab-Soul to spit some "Non-Fiction." Her guests are like her from the new and now generation, like Mac Miller & The Cool Kids on "Roundtable Discussion." To sum it up she covers all bases.

Given the disproportionate ratio of male to female rappers in the field of hip-hop, Rapsody is automatically going to be compared to artists like Jean Grae and Rah Digga. That's understandable but it's also inherently unfair, as she only sounds the tiniest iota like either one lyrically (if either of them it would be Jean) and is completely her own woman in terms of her vocab and rhyme flow. I'm guilty as charged though by comparing her to 1990's L-Boogie myself, but since she draws the comparison of her own accord on the album perhaps I can be forgiven. The bottom line though is that she's going to be known by generations to come as the master of her own style, one that men and women alike will wish they could do as well as she does on this debut.

To think this is a rapper who was a novice back in high-school; the fact that she developed so quickly and sounded so confident on her debut album was amazing. She put out mixtapes and honed her skills but few have developed as quickly as Rapsody!

By mixing metaphors, clever wordplay and powerful images, you can tell Rapsody is in this for the music – fame, money and all the other trappings of music do not appeal to her. There are few out there who sound so commanding yet accessible. One can hear a bit of Lauryn Hill in Rapsody’s work but, to be honest, the hints are minor. I will talk about Rapsody’s (Marlanna Evans) latest album, Eve, in a second but you look back at her discography and progress and realise she has not missed a step! The quality and brilliance was there from the start; the mixtapes are incredible and I have seen few artists who are so complete out of the traps. Her second studio album, Laila’s Wisdom, pulled together huge stars such as Kendrick Lamar (Rapsody appeared on Lamar’s album, To Pimp a Butterfly) and Busta Rhymes. Laila’s Wisdom was released in 2017 – a year after Rapsody signed to Roc Nation. With every work, Rapsody seems to grow in confidence and scope. Laila’s Wisdom was another critical and commercial success. In this review, AllMusic were keen to praise Rapsody:

Titled in tribute to her grandmother, Laila's Wisdom is Evans' lyrically broadest and musically richest work, yet it doesn't have the sprawling quality of the first album. There's a finer, detail-filled shape to it, from the "Young, Gifted, and Black" (Aretha)-sampling title track to "Jesus Coming," an astonishing finale in which Evans relates the aftermath of a playground tragedy from multiple perspectives. The material is elevated by the heightened levels of authority and nuance in Evans' voice.

 Realistic fictional narratives, biographical reflections, affirmations of excellence, and sharing of knowledge are all strong suits for her. What's most impressive is a latter half-section that covers a wide scope of relationship issues. It deftly moves from the beat-switching dreamlike gem "A Rollercoaster Jam Named Love" (featuring Gwen Bunn and Musiq Soulchild) to the downcast vocoder funk of "U Used 2 Leave Me" (with Terrace Martin) to the lovestruck yet grounded "Knock on My Door" (featuring BJ the Chicago Kid). There are no weak aspects of Evans' game. In "Power," just before she hands the mike to favor-returning Kendrick Lamar, she boasts "I ain't Five-Percent, 'less we talkin' the top MCs." There's no evidence to the contrary”.

This year has been a fantastic one for music and one that is being defined for women. Across the musical map, women are striking hard and laying down some incredible albums! Missy Elliott just released an E.P., ICONOGRAPHY. Sampa the Great is gearing up and we have already been treated to huge albums from Little Simz, Lizzo and Solange. In Rap and Hip-Hop we are seeing some hugely powerful women come through but I wonder, in 2019, are the genres as open and accepting as they should be?! Rapsody is a leader and voice that is calling for change and recognition. She proves she is as potent and fierce as any male artist out there and, in terms of talent and passion, there are few that can match her. I will end by bringing in a couple of reviews for Eve but, to me, it is one of the most important and astonishing albums of the year.

Featuring D'Angelo and GZA, Ibtihaj is one of the best songs of 2019. I love the combination of voices and, of course, Rapsody leading from the front. It seems that Eve has arrived at an important moment; at a time when women are still being overlooked. When speaking with Billboard, Rapsody was asked about her latest creation and women in Hip-Hop:

“Sonically, this album is a complete departure from Laila's Wisdom. It's a different color of sound. Was that the goal where you wanted something that sounded completely different from your previous album?

Yeah, completely. I didn't want to make projects where people always know what to expect. Like, "OK, we already know what Rap's going to give us." I wanted to show that I was versatile and just do something totally different -- and [producer] Eric G helped a big deal with that just because the sound that he brings. I told the team that I want this to sound completely different from Laila’s Wisdom. Everybody was down just to challenge ourselves, have fun and create.

When it comes to women in hip-hop, what is your role in 2019?

My role is to bring balance, and to have another lane as a woman in hip-hop that happens to rhyme as well as any man. I want to remind people that being a woman is a beautiful thing, and it's a part of you, but it's not all you are. You can just be dope without having to just be about your gender. No matter where you're from, no matter what gender you are, religion you are, you can be dope. I want to inspire people to find themselves and to love themselves and never let nobody box you in.

We’ve also seemed to move past a time where only one woman could be on top. In fact, women in hip-hop have been supporting you. How refreshing is it that the women are showing unity in 2019?

It's dope. It's something that I've always wanted to see in this day and age of hip-hop. I didn't get to see [that] when I was growing up, and I know it's possible. And it's needed, and we as artists -- we can't continue to fall into the false narrative of there can only be one. And that we can't work together and we can't support each other and still make dope music and compete with each other in a healthy way. That's a false narrative and the media are often trying to pit us against each other. We ain't falling for the banana in the tailpipe”.

Eve is a powerful album and the peak of Rapsody’s career so far. In a year that has seen so many great albums from Hip-Hop and Rap artists, Eve is a step ahead of the rest. When speaking with DJBooth recently, Rapsody discussed Eve and how she is giving voice to issues that need to be raised right now:

DJBooth: The first thing I noticed on Eve was the sheer amount of passion you brought to your delivery. I’ve never heard you so fired up. Where did that come from?

Rapsody: Two places. One, for me, as an artist, figuring out who I am and being comfortable with who I am. Understanding my place in the culture and not having to chase anything or fit [into] anything. I’m just super confident in who I am, and I’m walking my walk fearlessly. Two, I believe the stories that I’m telling and the love and respect I have for Black women. I want to display that urgency in the music. When they listen to it, I want people to hear that it’s honest. It’s not a gimmick or following a trend. We’re working on this album, and it just so happens to drop in a time where Black women are at the forefront of a lot of conversations. That’s not why this album was made, for this time. This album was made for the truth in it.

There’s also a handful of bars rightfully calling out the industry dynamics and how they hurt women. How does it feel to have the platform to call attention to these issues?

I’m thankful for it. I’m thankful to be able to use my voice to shed light on things that need to be talked about in a truthful, unapologetic way. In an urgent way. We shouldn’t allow anyone else outside of this culture to define us. The power we have as a people to take that control back, this is our culture, so we should be the ones running it and putting out the images of what we look like as women. How we want to be portrayed and how we want to be respected. It’s just a reminder not to forget who we are, our lineage, our history, and the power that we have. Hopefully, [I] add some spark to a spark that’s already there”.

I know I have quoted from a number of different sources but, to be honest, there is so much love out there for Rapsody! Her work is incredible and she is one of the most important voices in modern music. I would suggest people read as many interviews by her as possible as Rapsody is illuminating, honest and passionate. It is that passion that drives her work and inspires other. She has been influenced by the likes of Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill: in years to come, there will be a new breed of rappers who take their cue from Rapsody. My favourite album of the year is Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! but I have been listening to Eve and there might be a challenger in the ring! The reviews for Eve have certainly been positive. This is The Guardian’s take:

Densely referential and carefully wrought, Rapsody’s lyrics contain many more head-nods to successful black women than are in the track titles (she mentions ballerina Misty Copeland on Tyra, and Angela Bassett on Whoopi Goldberg).

With a delivery cut from the same cloth as Jay-Z or Lauryn Hill, she’s a storyteller, and counterbalances her wisdom with a dry, playful wit. Plus, she’s the queen of the dismissive one-liner (“I ain’t feeling you like I ain’t feeling new Kanye,” she announces on Whoopi).

Rapsody’s playful flow is mirrored by the shape-shifting production, which balances nostalgia with future-facing flourishes, as with the angelic backing vocals on Aaliyah. There are solid guest turns from newcomers such as New York rapper Leikeli47 as well as legends D’Angelo and GZA. But Rapsody herself is the undisputed star, offering up empowerment in droves on the catwalk-worthy Tyra (“damn I’m stunning”) and Serena, an ode to grafting hard for your fortune”. 

In another review, Pitchfork highlights why Eve is such an important and powerful record:

Rapsody wields the namesakes on Eve not as reference materials but as stepping off points for considerations on colorist beauty standards, black capitalism, activism, and drive. She raps about being counted out, singled out, and fed up. “This ain’t E.T. news, I done went sci-fi/I’m closer to God, I done went sky high/Been alienated so much that I must be fly,” she gloats on “Aaliyah.” She’s locked in, he wordplay as clever as ever, but she also doesn’t feel beholden to past versions of herself. The updated model is multifaceted with catchier hooks, nimbler rhyme schemes, and a willingness to ad-lib.

She is as comfortable trading bars with Leikeli47 on “Oprah” as she is Queen Latifah on “Hatshepsut,” both of whom make formidable sparring partners. But the message is one of inclusivity, of banding together to receive the respect that is long overdue. And it isn’t just about being acknowledged; it’s about taking a rightful place in the hierarchy. For Rapsody, specifically, that means being as respected as her male peers often spoken of as successors”.

I am not sure whether Rapsody is coming to the U.K. to tour but, if you are in the U.S., you can catch her on the road. One might find it odd for me to put an acclaimed artist in my Spotlight feature – this is not a ‘ones to watch’ piece: instead, I am highlighting artists you need to check out. The next edition features a newer act that are starting out but, now, I was keen to laud a truly remarkable artist. You might be unfamiliar with her work now but you need to become acquainted as, without doubt, Eve is…

AMONG the finest albums of 2019.


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