Rapsody Is Busy Turning Poison Into Joy

Jhalin Knowles

Rapsody Is Busy Turning Poison Into Joy

Jhalin Knowles

The North Carolina emcee on her vulnerable new album Please Don't Cry, birthday calls from Stevie Wonder, and much more

“Never knew a different life/ Because no one was there to show her,” rapped North Carolina’s Rapsody with real purpose on the underrated 2012 song “In The Town.”

Her vocals are the perfectly weighted mix of honeyed empathy and desperate concern for all the working-class women caught up in tragic inner-city cycles (including prostitution and drug addiction). Over a pensively sad yet surprisingly nostalgic soul-rap instrumental produced by mentor 9th Wonder, Rapsody (real name Marlanna Evans) ponders whether had someone actually been there – “to take her by the shoulders and tell her she was beautiful” – things could have worked out differently.

The 41-year-old agrees when I say these lines carry her mission statement as an artist. “I call it being a compass and helping other people find a light back to themselves. When we go far out and get lost, there’s pieces of light that bring us back home, right?” Rapsody explains. “And that’s what I feel like my space is within this hip-hop culture: I’m the lighthouse for people.”

These aforementioned lyrics tell you everything you need to know about Rapsody’s approach to writing raps. She’s won high-profile fans (including Barack Obama, Stevie Wonder, and Jay-Z) due to the way her music consistently helps people learn to love their own shadow, no matter how dark it is (like she did on a knockout guest verse for Kendrick Lamar’s “Complexion“). She’s also a pretty fearless musical force; when she risked a rap rework of Kate Bush’s pitch perfect “This Woman’s Work,” it somehow didn’t sound corny.

Raised in North Carolina’s Snow Hill, a bible belt town in the Green County area with surprisingly lofty ambitions (it is the smallest town in the United States to ever field a professional baseball team, for example), as well as a deep-set, family-orientated sense of community, Rapsody says her imagination was forced to be brighter than the Generation X hip-hop kids from other states.

“In New York or the other big cities you can catch a Broadway play or go to Disneyland when you get bored, but I am currently sitting inside the house where I grew up, and I can see things like forests, corn crops, and tobacco fields. There isn’t much of a music scene, you know?” she explains, revealing her raps started out as diary-like poetry as a teenager. “Growing up I remember going out to the [neighboring] woods and there being swing seats made from buckets. At night, it’s really quiet here: just you, God, and the stars. This environment helped me become a visionary, though… as it forces your imagination to be a lot brighter. The area allows you to be quiet and more reflective.”

A “pro-Black” father also instilled a thirst for knowledge, which has a direct line into Rapsody’s probing, historically curious style of rapping: “For Christmas everybody else would be watching Home Alone, but we would all be watching Roots. Dad made sure I was always connected to my history [as a Black woman].”

Career best projects like 2017’s Laila’s Wisdom and 2014’s Beauty And The Beast presented witty punchlines; unorthodox, free jazz-like flows; and spiritual prophecies, all side-by-side. Rapsody made music to inspire the lighting of sage candles, rather than go on a spending spree at Supreme or Balenciaga. “I got a car that doesn’t go fast/ Pushing it to the limit” were the relatable lines at the core of breezy Mac Miller collaboration, “Extra Extra.” The late rapper taught Rapsody how to relax when making music. “Mac would walk around eating a piece of pizza, then go rap the craziest shit,” she says. “Completely relaxed and carefree.”

Over the years Rapsody has also held her own on duets with fierce top tier male rap lyricists including Black Thought, Jay Electronica, GZA, Big Daddy Kane, Nipsey Hussle, and Busta Rhymes — the career goal has been to sound so accomplished rapping that people look beyond the fact she has ovaries. Yet with the brilliant new project, Please Don’t Cry (out today to follow up 2019’s Eve, a concept album that immortalized powerful Black women throughout history), it’s quickly apparent Rapsody has become a little exhausted by having to fight such an uphill battle.

Amid the wavy Dilla-esque drums of obvious album highlight “Asteroids,” the beat’s warm sheen inspires a reflective exploration of the gender divide that still defines American hip-hop’s hierarchy. “If I had a dick, I would be in the greatest debates,” Rapsody complains. On another scathing new song, “Diary Of A Mad Bish,” she raps, “Everything is cookie cutter/ We seen too much ass/ It ain’t special anymore/ Like breathing or taking a bath… it’s everyday shit”.

These are refreshingly honest bars that should hopefully start a new dialogue over who really profits from the hyper sexualization of Black female bodies, or the persistent framing of scantily clad rap music videos as “feminist.” First single “Stand Tall” complains of how rap peers have often assumed Rapsody was a lesbian, just because she rocks short hair or prefers to wear baggy clothing. So many of the sounds are about blowing apart expectations.

In the past, Rapsody’s eternally wise rapping presence might have made you feel like you were sitting down for a meeting about life with the Oracle in The Matrix. Yet on these new songs, she sounds less scared about ruffling feathers and more visceral vocally. This could have something to do with the fact it’s the first LP she’s ever sequenced entirely by herself; you’re seeing Rapsody’s truth, warts and all. Recorded after having her heart broken and “lots of crying,” and while excavating demons during the reflective times of those isolating COVID-19 lockdowns back in 2020, the music’s anger gradually transitions into self-love, giving us pearls of wisdom from legendary guests like Erykah Badu and Lil Wayne.

Despite the self-immolation of some of the earlier songs, the latter half of the album feels like its creator has risen out the ashes like a Phoenix, finally re-discovering her confidence. In a world where the following word is passed around way too easily by critics, it’s fair to say this album is a genuinely cathartic experience. “God’s Light” takes a soul-cleansing sample of reggae revitalist Chronixx’s deckchair anthem “Eternal Light” to bask in the orange glow of a Kingston sunset.

Of the clear Jamaican influence that runs through the whole of this new record, Rapsody concludes, “When I was doing the color board of what I wanted this album to feel like, it was green, black and gold [like the Jamaican flag], so it’s crazy you picked up on that! I kept talking to my producer Major Seven about how Lauryn Hill always picked those rap beats that were real emotional, but never sad-feeling. Her music has this vibrancy, right? Major Seven was like: ‘That’s because of the Caribbean, Jamaican influence!’ So, we definitely went to Jamaica with the sound of this new album. This new album is all about dancing through the pain; that’s a very Jamaican concept.”

To celebrate the release of Please Don’t Cry, Stereogum had a heart-to-heart chat, taking in everything from the mainstream’s hyper-sexualisation of women to channeling the blues and getting birthday calls from Stevie Wonder. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

I can’t stop thinking about this lyric on the new album when you rap about getting tired of seeing ass and it now being just “everyday shit.” I don’t sense that you’re criticising sex-positive raps by women in hip hop, but rather feeling frustrated that maybe the mainstream pushes that specific type of music at us too much, which can be samey. That the mainstream and major labels can sometimes only market women in hip hop one way, which can be lazy. What led to that frustration?

RAPSODY: I don’t want to put down any women in hip-hop right now who twerk or whatever. It’s just, like, that’s all we see in hip-hop right now! It’s so redundant, because nobody is being original or authentic with it. We loved Lil Kim and Foxxy Brown when they came out. Cardi B too. That’s who they were! But all these years later and that still can’t be everybody’s same story, right?

Right now it’s sex, sex, sex, sex sells! With a lot of the new women in music, it will just be twerking, twerking, twerking. And, after a while, I was just feeling like, “Okay, everyone’s just doing the same thing. This is everyday shit now!” Even the guys after a while, they’re not even excited. It’s boring to them, too.
When you see a Tierra Whack, what makes you stop is because it’s so different and authentic. When you see a BbyMutha or Leikeli47, they are being great just by being themselves. My whole message is like, believe that doing you is good enough! The world will tell you differently, like, “This twerking thing popped off, so this is exactly what you gotta do now, too!” Nah, being who you are is good enough to be successful. Otherwise you’re gonna be chasing [fame] too hard, and you’re gonna burn out too quickly.

I guess you could argue there’s a lot of modern pop songs about fucking, but there aren’t many about true sensuality. I love your new song “Lonely Women” because I can tell it’s really important you rap about the art of making love and being still with somebody; even if that somebody ends up being yourself. These are intimate things Minnie Riperton used to write about, and your songwriting reminds me of hers.

RAPSODY: I love Minnie! You know I recorded 360 songs for this new album, and a lot of them were love songs. Maybe in rap we talk a lot about the raunchy side of sex, which is cool and has its place, but what about the ebbs and flows of love? “Lonely Women” is me speaking up for the lonely women who haven’t found that special someone and they’re all alone. I was playing off the metaphor that maybe when we masturbate sometimes, you have to learn how to please yourself, so when you do have a partner you can communicate this to them. You have to learn to love yourself first and understand your own pleasure, ahead of any sex thing! Like I say on this record, intimacy is better than somebody kissing you between your legs or on your neck. Intimacy is about sitting up talking late with someone or being safe with somebody, sitting in solitude and silence together. Intimacy is much more interesting to me [as a songwriter].

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This new album starts with a blues sample and it ends with one too. I sense the Bessie Smiths, the Ma Raineys and Dinah Washingtons were just as much an inspiration on this project as, say, a Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu. It’s important you show that connection between the blues and rap, right? They’re basically siblings.

RAPSODY: I was driving around alone listening to Laryn Hill’s Unplugged on CD [when making the new album]. Dinah was definitely someone I also listened a lot to. You know, jazz, soul, and the blues are the cornerstones of hip-hop! Rap came out of all those genres being sampled. I want my music to help tell that story and to remind people where we all come from. We need to reconnect to those frequencies. I grew up around a lot of soul music: Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle. My mom cooked and cleaned to that music, my dad cut the grass to it! I had rhythm and blues in my bones long before I was born. With the new album, I needed to reconnect to those roots. I didn’t want a lot of rappers to feature. I wanted a lot of singers on this one; I had to have that soul element.

The piano is also a constant presence in this new music. It’s acting as your therapist, right?

RAPSODY: Nobody has ever figured that out about me before, but yes, it’s my favorite instrument in the whole wide world! The keys speak to me in a whole other frequency and they let me be honest. When we were making this album, I wanted it to be raw emotion, so a lot of the songs started out with the piano. On “3:AM” I wrote to the piano, and we then built the beat around it later. It was really about raw emotion, and the piano brings out the most honest emotions, you know?

I remember when you flipped “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush and spoke about “Going harder today than I ever did last night.” That lyric seemed to speak to the sexism in the industry, and how men can coast by while women always have to continuously improve and, like, can’t ever stand still.

RAPSODY: I’m not naive or blind to the fact that, as a woman, I had to work harder to get the same respect, to get the same notoriety, as my fellow brothers get in the rap business. I was raised in a family of strong women and whenever anything went wrong, it’s not the men that I saw coming together to fix those issues, you know? My mom and her sisters, every time, no matter what it was: it could be, you know, somebody’s going through hardship with alcohol, or someone dies! Women working hard every day was something passed down to me. My mom raised me to work hard. When I played basketball, I was the first one to practice and then the last one to leave. I would stay late and practice with the boys; just because I wanted to be the best.

What was it like working with Stevie Wonder? It must have been crazy rapping pan-African protest bars on a track with him.

RAPSODY: It was an honor, even if it still feels surreal! Man, let me tell you something about Stevie: That request came out of nowhere. They told me Stevie wanted to talk about a new song and then I got this random call at 2AM. This man kept speaking in a thick cockney British accent, who I assumed was Stevie’s European representative or something, as he was apparently overseas. The call ends and I find out it was Stevie putting on a funny voice the whole time. I was like: “Get the fuck out of here!” Apparently he does it a lot. He’s a jokester. The crazy thing is I got his number and we sometimes text. He calls me every year on my birthday and sings “Happy Birthday” to me; that’s his thing! He calls everybody he likes on their birthday and sings a private song.

What are your hopes for the future? Going back to your tender early song “How Does It Feel,” is the goal still all about spreading more love and prayer? Because things feel pretty godless in our world right now, don’t they?

RAPSODY: I agree that there’s a disconnect in morals right now, and all of that is rooted in love. When you talk about God, to me, you find God in love! And you have to love yourself. You have to love other people! That’s how you learn empathy. That’s when you learn compassion. That’s when you learn forgiveness. But the root of all that is: love. When we forget how to love ourselves, when we forget how to love other people, we lose our connection with God. God was love. He loved the sinners. He loved the beggars. He loved all people. And the world is what it is because people are not operating in those values anymore.

Moving forward, I want to always operate in love because when I do that, I make the best decisions, you know? I just want to travel and have different experiences and really get the fullness of what living is. I want to keep on growing. Maybe because of the way my music is, I won’t reach 10 million people. It may only be 100k or 250k, but 9th Wonder taught me that they will be fans for the rest of my life, because I’ve always rapped to them more like my family. They’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs.

Please Don’t Cry is out now on Def Jam/Roc Nation.

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