On a chilly December morning in Atlanta, Marlanna Evans — better known as Rapsody — is sitting on the edge of a king-sized bed, her feet dangling above a scrum of orange Nike boxes. She has been on tour for two weeks, and yesterday, a rare day off, she did some shopping. The fruits of her retail excursion are strewn around the room, and a Law & Order rerun beams from the flat-screen TV.
“I don’t even have time to watch TV anymore,” she admits as she clicks off the remote. At barely 5-foot-3, dressed in a black Nike sweatshirt and sweatpants, Rapsody cuts an unassuming figure, save for the sweep of electric red hair atop her head. Her vibe is similarly low-key: She speaks softly, rarely raising her voice, and seems to measure each sentence. But she exudes an approachable warmth, laughing easily and looking giddy to be kicking back in these upscale digs. In the past, she found herself running low on cash at this time of year. “This is probably the first November to January that I’m really comfortable,” she says.
When this year’s Grammy Award nominations were announced, Rapsody earned two. “Sassy,” an airy groove that quotes Maya Angelou, scored a nod for best rap song, and her soulful, ambitious second studio full-length, Laila’s Wisdom, is nominated for best rap album, alongside efforts by JAY-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Migos and Tyler, The Creator, making Rapsody only the fifth female nominee ever in the 23-year history of the category. Aside from Lauryn Hill, who took home the trophy with The Fugees in 1997 (and might as well have with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999, though it was relegated to the R&B category), none have ever won.
Although artists like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah were influential in rap’s early years, and Hill and Missy Elliott are considered among the genre’s greats, hip-hop has suffered more recently from a dearth of well-recognized female rappers — beyond Nicki Minaj, who broke through in 2010 and has dominated since then with 83 Hot 100 entries, the most for any woman. With Cardi B’s explosive debut in 2017, that drought subsided a bit, though the work of making hip-hop a more equitable place is far from finished. Where Minaj, a 10-time Grammy nominee who has yet to win, is known for her ferocious technical skill coupled with pure pop ability, and Cardi has already distinguished herself as a playful and aggressive MC, Rapsody is a throwback, a storyteller with a low-key, B-girl image — she favors T-shirts and tracksuits, and stalks around the stage with her microphone held close to her mouth — a stark contrast to her more glamorous, extroverted peers.
Her music, too, feels distinctly out of step with prevailing trends. In a year dominated by hyper-catchy, highly stylized rap singles, she made an artistically bold, thematically cohesive, lyrically dexterous 14-track album tackling war, drug abuse, mass incarceration, gender dynamics and police violence.
“I know my blackness powerful and they don’t like that,” she raps on the album’s first single, “Power.” “I know some n—-s sold theirs, sit back and watch them tap dance.” But Laila’s Wisdom has earned just 17,000 equivalent-album units, according to Nielsen Music, and “Sassy” has just over 300,000 streams on Spotify. By comparison, Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” — also nominated for best rap song this year, and a track that Rapsody herself loves (“I turn up to that!”) — garnered over 243 million Spotify streams. “Once the album came out, the reviews were great,” says Rapsody. “But I saw it was going to be a slow burn.”
For 34-year-old Rapsody, the nods are the culmination of a long-simmering career. In the two years since Lamar gave her the only rap feature on his epic To Pimp a Butterfly, she picked up enthusiastic co-signs from Dr. Dre and JAY-Z, signed to Roc Nation and visited the Obama White House multiple times. Now, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of Donald Trump, Laila’s Wisdom arrives at a moment when hip-hop is engaging the political world with a greater sense of urgency. And after years of waiting, in a time when socially conscious rap rarely translated to commercial success, Rapsody finds herself among artists like Lamar and Chance the Rapper — not to mention a newly woke Eminem and JAY-Z — who the Grammys love to pluck out for recognition.
“It’s the times we’re in,” she says. “We can’t afford to not say anything. We have so much to talk about.”
“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.
Laila’s Wisdom, named for Rapsody’s grandmother, is a deeply personal album on which she pulls back the curtain on her own intimate relationships (“A Rollercoaster Jam Called Love,” “U Used 2 Love Me”) and confronts warped standards of female beauty. On standout track “Black & Ugly,” she raps, “I remember when y’all used to call me ugly/Isn’t it ironic, now y’all just want to love me,” calling out YouTube commenters who’ve disparaged her looks. “People see music before they hear it,” says Rapsody. “I work hard, I respect the culture, I want to be known as one of the best, but because of the way I look you won’t even listen? What the fuck?”
“It’s always a case of finding your voice,” says 9th Wonder, who co-produced the album. “Instead of just rapping, what are you rapping? What do you have to say?” “Power,” which includes a verse from Lamar, manages to be personal, political and wildly catchy. As BJ the Chicago Kid, who appears on two tracks and has known Rapsody since 2010, puts it, “When it comes to her wordplay, her cadences, her subject matter, she’s like a female Kendrick to me.”
Later that afternoon, Rapsody climbs into a Sprinter van and heads a few miles to The Masquerade, a no-frills venue sitting in a mostly abandoned outdoor mall, where she’ll perform this evening. Tonight’s show, like many on this headlining run, is sold out — heartening evidence that Rapsody’s Grammy noms are moving the needle. “It puts you on another level, closer to the mainstream than I’ve ever been,” she says, sinking into a blue couch backstage. “This was my first run partnering with a major label, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t have this huge single or huge push. It’s inspiring [as a woman] to be celebrated for just your talent and skill.”
At the show that night, Rapsody exudes confidence. When she made Laila’s Wisdom, she was in the midst of a relationship, but now, she alerts the crowd, “I’m single this month,” before pulling a handsome fan onstage to dance with her during “Rollercoaster” and telling him, “I might have to knock on your door later.”
Rapsody knows that come Grammy night, she’s a long shot. But for a female MC who came from the middle of nowhere, the recognition alone might be enough. “Just to sit there with my mom, my brother, 9th, Terrace and our team, when your album cover is on the screen and you hear them say your name?” she says, shivering a little. “I’m excited.”
When this tour is over, she’ll go back home to Raleigh, where she still lives, in part to save money. “I always wanted to live in New York,” she says. “I still do. And I thought about moving to Los Angeles last year. But it was so expensive.” Still, Rapsody allows herself quiet moments to dream that it could be her who wins the statue and experiences the changes that come with it. “It’s only natural to give yourself a small ‘What if I do?’” she says. Of course, doing so would require beating out her ferociously competitive label boss. “I think Jay would be proud. It would be a big-brother moment.” She smiles widely, shakes her head and lets out a hearty laugh. “That would be crazy.”