Rapsody is no longer rhyming for a seat at the table. The 36-year-old emcee already earned that right with her phenomenal Grammy-nominated sophomore album Laila’s Wisdom.
The wordsmith from Snow Hill, NC demonstrated a wicked knack of wordplay with her 2017 body of work that she shoved her way into hip hop’s elite, without having to ask to be accepted. But now that she’s here, the Jamla lyricist is hellbent on improving her status among the greatest rhyme-slingers of our generation, with a body of work that pays homage to the women who had a hand in shaping and molding her as the queen she is today.
With that comes Eve, an ambitious undertaking, where the MC titled each song after the exceptional black women who inspired her.
Rapsody tells Billboard it was the summer of 2018 when the idea came to craft this album. She was being interviewed by The Oxford when it was suggested that she was a part of a lineage of great women that included Nina Simone and Roberta Flack.
“I never thought about it in that way,” she said. “It made me think of who I’m influenced by, I talk about female rappers, but I also talk about Cicely Tyson and Phylicia Rashad and Nikki Giovanni. Throughout my career, I’ve always talked about black women — not just female rappers — and how much they’ve inspired me and made me who I am. This is my love letter to not only myself, but all black women.”
Billboard sat down with Rapsody to discuss the creation of the album, how she ended up getting Queen Latifah back to her rhyming roots, who “Cleo” is targeting, and where she fits into the landscape of women in hip hop in 2019.
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.
I think we built around “Aaliyah,” “Oprah” and “Sojourner.” 9th Wonder would go in and sequence the album with just beats. I was just listening to it, and was like, “Yeah, this is the energy, this is the vibe.” Whether or not all those beats made the album, we knew sonically where we wanted to go.
I’m glad you brought up “Oprah.” That song is one that can define an album, because it doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever done before.
Man, Eric G sent me that beat, and I was excited because it didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before, let alone anything that I’d ever tried to rap on. I want to be inspired by people, but I also want to be a trendsetter and go left of what everybody else is doing, and that beat was it for me. I was just so moved and inspired by the beat, it just rocked…
And there’s somebody on this record, too, that also brought it. Why did you decide to bring Leikeli47 in?
I’m a big fan of Leikeli and been one since her first project, Wash and Set. We did a BET Hip Hop Awards cipher in 2017. We connected in friendship, then she put out Acrylic. That album was bananas. I thought that was one of the best albums that came out last year. When I got the beat, I did two versions, and felt that there’s an energy that’s missing and there’s only one person for me that can fill that. And that was Leikeli.
On “Cleo,” you don’t name any names, but it definitely feels like you are taking aim at a certain group of individuals, because you aren’t here for any form of disrespect.
No, I’m not. People know I’m humble. I let the music speak for itself. I don’t really come for nobody that don’t come for me. But at the same time, I see everything, I hear everything, and I know people don’t always put respect on my name. I just want to put you on notice. It ain’t always going to be humbleness, but I’ve done too much and I’ve worked too hard to not earn respect. You know what I mean? Don’t cross that bridge if you ain’t ready.
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.
I appreciate Megan Thee Stallion for her gift and the story that she tells. I don’t have to dim my light to pick her up, and she doesn’t have to dim her light to pick me up… There’s room for all that. The more we work together, the more it’s better for women in hip-hop. We have to come together, because if we don’t then we’re never going to get the respect we deserve.
Speaking of Queen Latifah, how did she end up on the album? The prevailing thought among many is that Latifah’s rap career was done.
Queen’s never leaving hip-hop. She is hip-hop. The connection happened through MURS and I have to thank him. He’s a blessing for making that happen. He was in North Carolina working on his album with 9th. We were talking, and he showed me a tattoo he had of Queen Latifah and the conversation went to, “Have you ever worked for her?” And I was like, “Um, no. She’s on my list, biggest influence I’ve ever had on this project.” To me she’s untouchable. She’s Queen Latifah.
So he’s like, “Man, I think I can help you with that. I don’t think it’s as hard as you think it is. Let me work on it.” And next thing you know, he got her manager Shakim, and Shakim connected with 9th, and 9th had the first official conversation about how in Atlanta I would play him the album. And 9th called me and said, “Queen about to call you.” She told me she was a fan, which I was blown away by. I told her about the record and sent her the song and she blessed it.
We talked on the phone like seven more times, then I went to L.A. We had one studio stay, and I played her the album. She gave me her opinion on those things. I changed the album because of her. The next day, she told me to come to the house — and we’re working on the song there together, joking around and telling stories. She even played stuff that she was working on. She’s so talented and gifted.
As someone who grew up idolizing Queen Latifah, was there a moment in this process where you were starstruck?
I mean, being in the studio and the crib, it was frightening. I had a moment like, “Wow, I’m really in Queen Latifah’s crib and her studio and working on songs together.” But she made me so comfortable that it was just easy and fun because her energy is so dope. You feel like you’re a cousin, like you’ve known her forever — but you look up and you’re like, “Man, you’re Queen Latifah.”
What would it mean for you to one day be mentioned among the names you revere so heavily on this album?
I haven’t even taken the time to even think about it in that way. But I know what I want my legacy to be. And I want to be respected in that way, as someone that inspired people. Not that I expect to go get songs named after me — which would be dope, to be honest — but I at least want to do my part to help make the door a little bit bigger for even more to come through. And everything I do is to inspire people to see light and themselves, and just to be the best they could be. I just want to be somebody that helped progress, engaging the culture at the end of the day.
You’ve done a phenomenal job of giving us these stories about other people in your work, but when are we going to get the album that is going to be about you and what you’ve been through to this point?
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it throughout my whole career. But I think before I make that album, I want to be my complete self. I’m still learning who I am and processing everything I’ve been through, being able to look back at it and see why it happened, what I learned from it. I want to do a song or album … I’m not saying it’s the title, but I just want to title it “Marlanna.” That’s my real name, just really talk about my story.
But I’m still going through the process of living and growing, and need to be in a place where I’m not afraid to be honest or to be judged. I want to get to that place. If I want to do it, I want to do it all the way. So it’s just me continuing to grow until I’m ready to tell those stories — because it’s stories I definitely want to tell.