In Conversation: What Rapsody Likes Most About Kobe Bryant and More on Laila's Wisdom
By Jaylin Paschal
IT'S AN OLD SAYING--"WISDOM IS POWER." BUT LUCKILY FOR HIP HOP HEADS, SOUTH CAROLINA'S YOUNG WORDSMITH, RAPSODY, HAS BREATHED NEW LIFE INTO AN AGING APHORISM. HERE SHE IS, SHARING WISDOM (AND THEREFORE, POWER) WITH US ALL.
Rapsody's most recent (and Grammy nominated) album, Laila's Wisdom, is fourteen tracks of reflection, anecdote and melody. By weaving complex rhymes through intoxicatingly smooth beats, Rapsody managed to release on of the most intricate and revered albums of 2017.
What inspired Laila’s Wisdom?
Rapsody: Me and 9th [Wonder, producer] had multiple conversations about what I wanted to do. I had these big ideas and by the end of it we came into saying, “Let’s just make music. Just tell your stories, ‘cause whatever story you tell there’s going to be somebody in this world that’s going to be able to relate. Be vulnerable.” So that’s kinda how I went into it. I would just get music--get it from 9th, Eric G-- and I would just write. As far as concepts go, I had no idea. I’m the reason I am because of the way my mom raised me, and my mom is that because of my grandmother. That’s the reason I named it what I named it. This is my story, this is me: A black woman telling what it’s like to be in Hip Hop and to grow up in North Carolina and just to be a woman in this world. So, that was the creative process: Just to get some music, and wherever that music takes you--or whatever’s on your mind that day or whatever conversations you have that day--pull from that. And after that the magic happens, where you have the producers come in and arrange it and Terrace Martin bridges everything together. But for me that was the initial thing: Just make dope music.
But it's not the first time Rapsody has given us "dope music." Her catalog is impressive. By carving out a lane of her own, Rapsody has been able to capture the interest of industry giants, including Jay Z and Roc Nation. "They'll pay attention, Hov do," she raps on the intro track, "Laila's Wisdom."
This was your first album under Roc Nation. Do you feel like the release and rollout was different this time and that you had the platform you needed to put out such an album?
Rapsody: Yeah, definitely. Nothing changed too much on our end, except the marketing and the push and the platform that we were able to get. And that was the biggest thing for Jamla. We talked about partnering with another label, and we didn’t want to lose anything creative. So, I didn’t have any headaches about that. You know, you hear horror stories all the time of artists when they go and partner or sign with big labels, but it’s been a great relationship with Jamla and Roc and the platform and things that I’ve been able to do; the places they’ve put me so that people can have eyes on me who may not have necessarily ever found me. So that’s been a great thing.
More of an audience means, of course, more opinions. Thousands of fans took to Twitter to share their thoughts on the project.
When the album came out, I was checking the hashtag on Twitter. And I saw a lot of people saying “Yo, this is the best rap album out, period. Not just by a female rapper, etc., etc.” So, I was wondering how you feel about the “female rapper” categorization.
Rapsody: It separates you from everyone else, and everyone else being men. It puts you in a different playing field, as less than. I just like to be compared to the greats.
I want this album, or any music I do, to be compared to other great albums. No matter who made them--what gender, what color, what religion, what place in the world they are. So with me, I just like it to be that conversation: Where do I fall in all music that released this year? Or all of your favorite artists. Not just female. I think that’s doing a disservice to women when you just box us in like that, or pit us against each other, or act like we can only be compared to each other.
On "Sassy," Rapsody talks more about standing boldly in womanhood. Questions like "Oh, you mad that I survived?" and "Does my sassiness offend you?" are half- rapped, half-laughed throughout the track, which seems to have an appropriately playful and sarcastic-sounding beat. Overall, the song comments on society's expectations of black women.
On that same note of women’s status--some of the statements you made in songs like “Sassy” I think are relevant to both Hip Hop culture and American culture. How do you feel about black women’s status in Hip Hop in comparison to our status in the U.S.?
Rapsody: I have to separate it. Whatever happens in America, Hip Hop is going to talk about it. Or on the business end, it’s going to mirror whatever’s in American society. And when it comes to black women on a mainstream level--and I think it’s changing now, slowly--people didn’t look at us as being intelligent or having anything strong to say. Or [there’s the idea that] “there can only be one at a time,” and it can only be Nicki [Minaj, rapper], or “Who’s going to knock Nicki off her throne?” And Nicki ain’t got to go no where. Nicki can exist, and Remy Ma can exist, and Rapsody can exist, and Noname can exist and we all can exist. It doesn’t have to be this one-at-a-time-thing. But I think outside of mainstream [culture], I love that I can look out in Hip Hop and see people talking about 3D Na’Tee, and see people talking about Noname, and myself, and Cardi B.
A lot of them are men. So there’s this idea that Hip Hop is misogynistic and I’m like, “Well, I’m a woman in Hip Hop.” And I have a large male fan base and it’s not that. So I think it’s a false narrative when we’re talking about Hip Hop. The music business may be something else, but I think Hip Hop has always loved women and allowed us to be as different as we wanted to be. But that’s not going to be on your TV and radio. At least not right now. You have to go look and see the true beauty and the honesty and the culture of Hip Hop when it comes to black women in it. And how men do champion us, and how they do see us a leaders in this culture. So, that’s been my experience when it comes to Hip Hop and women in it.
In addition to what you may call the "personal politics," or "identity politics" of the discussion on black women, it's Rapsody's intentional incorporation of social issues which places this album in conversation with projects like Solange Knowles' A Seat at The Table.
I’ve noticed in songs like “Nobody” and other tracks that there are a lot of political undertones. Did you feel anymore responsibility to be politically vocal in Trump’s America?
Rapsody: I’m always going to talk about whatever’s going on. And we’re in this “45 era,”--I don’t like to speak his name, to be honest (laughs). I don’t like to give him any energy. But I’m in it. We’re all affected by things that are happening and laws that are being passed or taken away and things that are changing. As Nina Simone said, it’s the artist’s duty to report what’s happening. So I definitely feel the need to put it in my music. But, the beautiful thing is, we’re all going to talk about it and address it in different ways. Some of us are going to be very direct. Others are going to find other creative ways to talk about it. So, you know, I think as long as the message is out there-- and it may not even be in song. I just know that I’m always, always going to talk about what’s going on, whether it’s politics or a party down the street (laughs).
And it is in this way that Rapsody maintains her power, by constantly reflecting upon and taking charge on what's happening around her. As someone who's able to stand out on tracks with Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak and Busta Rhymes, she's clearly a powerhouse of language and skill. But, more importantly, of thought. The single featuring Kendrick Lamar, "Power," was an instant hit.
What is your 21st century definition of power?
Rapsody: I think you have complete power when you know your own light and you own it and walk in it. Which means you get up every day, and you look in the mirror, and you’re proud of that person that you see back. And it’s not fake.
Before I let you go, I have to ask: I know Kobe [Bryant] is your favorite [basketball] player. What qualities about his game do you like and do you think any of those qualities transfer into your flow or style?
Rapsody: This might be one of my favorite questions ever (laughs). If anything, he
just wants to play basketball. And you can tell he knows everything about it; that he’s studied everyone. And when you love something that much, your work ethic is ten times normal. And because it’s not like work to you, you get up doing something that you love. His love for the game and how he practices--the stories you hear about how he wakes up at 4 in the morning and does these drills. That inspires me to work on my craft. Because like he loves the game of basketball is how I love Hip Hop. So those are just some ways I’ve used him as a muse for my own creative process.
It's this sense of dedication coupled with meticulous lyricism and the "certain something" Hip Hop fans look for in artists that guarantees Rapsody's continued success. And our continued investment in growing wiser with her. More power to music.
This article was originally published in ABSTRACT Magazine / 2018.