“People tell me all the time, ‘It’s amazing you made it as far as you have, coming from where you come from,’” says Rapsody. She grew up in Snow Hill, N.C., a rural dot on the map halfway between Raleigh and the Atlantic Ocean, where her father, a mechanic, and her mother, who hand-paints the borders on expensive china, still live. “We weren't [raised] to think we could be musicians and artists,” says Rapsody. “You were taught the basic things: lawyer, doctor, teacher, accountant. Go to college, make some money, get married, have kids.”
But after her older cousins introduced her to artists like Hill, Nas and A Tribe Called Quest, Rapsody decided she wanted something else. At North Carolina State, she joined a local hip-hop collective called H2O, and one day in the summer of 2005, the Raleigh-based producer 9th Wonder met up with the group. Rapsody nervously sat in the corner of a small living room, trying not to throw up while 9th Wonder listened to the first two verses she had ever properly committed to tape. “My palms were sweaty,” she says. “I thought that shit was trash.” 9th Wonder, who had already earned production credits with JAY-Z, De La Soul and Destiny’s Child, disagreed. “[Her] music was rough around the edges, but I thought it was dope,” he says. “Just listening to her voice and her passion, I told everybody in the room, ‘That’s your star right there.’”
He began working with Rapsody, teaching her about cadence, inflection and tone. “He gave me homework,” she says. “Like, ‘Here’s 10 CDs’” -- albums like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders and JAY-Z’s The Black Album. “‘Go listen to how they say it versus what they’re saying.’” By 2008, she had signed with 9th Wonder’s independent label, Jamla, and two years later started releasing mixtapes, drawing in vaunted peers and influences including Lamar, Raekwon, Common and Chance for features. “She listens a lot, doesn't drink or smoke -- she’s just very focused,” says Terrace Martin, a producer, writer and artist who met Rapsody in 2010 and has worked with Snoop and Lamar. “When I heard her rap, the music felt like something that has been here forever but new at the same time.”
For years, Rapsody strung together a living through a combination of shows, features, a day job selling sneakers at Foot Action and timely trips to the pawn shop. “I was broke and hungry a lot,” she says. “I’d only eat once a day. I spent three months living in the studio, hitting up friends: ‘Hey, can I come take a shower?’ At times, I’d be flying high, but then it would always hit me in the November-to-January phase: ‘Shit! I’m broke again.’” Then, in 2015, Rapsody got her biggest showcase yet: a dynamic verse on “Complexion,” from Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Scoring the only guest verse on the platinum-selling, Grammy-winning opus that became the de facto soundtrack of Black Lives Matter felt like a cultural achievement as much as a career one.
“Kendrick put me on a platform,” she says today. “It validated me to a degree.” When she met JAY-Z backstage at a concert that same year, he rapped part of her “Complexion” verse back at her. “He pointed at me and was like, ‘Oh, there goes the spitter!’” she recalls, bouncing a little on the hotel bed. “I’m trying to be cool, but inside, I’m tripping. He’s my favorite rapper.” As part of an overall deal with Jamla, she signed with Roc Nation.
Now, she finds herself competing with her hero in a Grammy category where JAY-Z is the introspective elder statesman up against the hitmakers of the moment (Migos), the voice of the resistance (Lamar) and a left-field maverick (Tyler, The Creator). Rapsody is the respected voice of the underground, and in the first year of the Grammys’ new rap nomination review committee, her nods may signal the beginning of the academy recognizing artists beyond the mainstream.