Last Friday (Sept. 22), Rapsody released her soul-grabbing album Laila’s Wisdom, marking her first official release since inking a deal with Roc Nation in 2016. Rapsody, born Marlanna Evans, has always been an astute lyricist. Her exemplary wordplay has MCs like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and Common rhapsodizing about her elite abilities.
For her, her mind and heart are deeply entrenched in a culture that birthed the likes of Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill and MC Lyte. Those were her idols, who helped sharpen the MC’s lyricism before she entered the battlefield of rap. Now, at 29, the brazen wordsmith from North Carolina is hoping she can pass that same wisdom on to the next generation of aspiring female MCs.
On Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody grapples with touchy topics including love, race, and religion without blinking. While there remains a dearth of high-visibility female MCs in the genre today, on her latest offering, the Crown MC hops onto the saddle and takes a wolfish approach at stealing the throne — not just from her fellow ladies, but from all of hip-hop, period.
Billboard spoke with Rapsody about her new album Laila’s Wisdom, fighting for respect from her female peers, relationships, working with Kendrick Lamar and more.
The album title, Laila’s Wisdom, where does it come from?
My maternal grandmother. Her name was Laila, and there was just a quote [from her] that I grew up on, that was the backbone of our family — like everybody knew it, knew to live by it, always heard it. It was, “Give me my flowers while I’m here, while I can still smell them.”
If you called her, that’s what she said. If you brought her some food, that’s what she said. If you went to visit her, it didn’t matter. Whatever you did that was good that showed a little bit of time, a little bit of love [was appreciated.] I’m a Jehovah’s witness — we go to the Kingdom Hall, you go say hello, give her a hug and that’s what you heard.
So you know, it was all about giving people your time and love, however that came. As an artist, I came in, my purpose was to inspire — especially young black girls — and to bring balance, ’cause they don’t have that balance that I had. I had MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Missy, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Lauryn [Hill], Salt N Pepa — I had all of those. They don’t have that to look up to and to look to in music to bring them balance and so you know, purpose wise, that was it.
This was just my way of giving that through the music — just making it personal, and talking about different things. I feel like there’s something everybody can relate to that’s a different emotion, whether we’re talking about depression or self-confidence or loyalty. So this is me giving my flowers to the music.
What’s your fondest memory of your grandmother?
Just going to the house. She didn’t talk a lot. She laughed a lot, and that quote — whenever we talk about her, that’s the quote that we always say, so that’s probably the fondest thing. Just how loving she was, and accepting.
And her and my grandfather, they kept an open door. Everybody was family… “Come in, whatever you need, eat.” You know, I hear stories about how she would take people in and let them live in the house. So they were just really loving and giving people. They always gave, and it was always about community and family and taking care of family. And family wasn’t always blood. It was just good people.
How does it feel to have that Roc Nation stamp on you? Was there pressure to create this album knowing that this was going to be your first release especially on Roc Nation?
The album was pretty much done when we did that deal. So we came in with that album. I think, like, in a year, we tweaked and added some things.
So you were sitting on it?
Yeah. You know, not necessarily sitting on it — but when we got that that email from Spanish Ran (Roc Nation A&R Randy Rodriguez), we were already 80% in. We had a really good foundation. And during the last process of a year getting it out, mixing it, we added some things, changed a couple of things here, but for the most part, it was done when we were doing the Roc Nation deal.
But to partner with Roc Nation feels good. It feels like you got Jamla [Records], who’s in its own right this amazing label, but to connect that with this bigger thing that Jay-Z has built like a family is dope, and it makes sense.
You have Guru that has the Roc background, that’s family for him. You know 9th [Wonder], with The Black Album, so it all just connects. But, the label, they get it. They just get it, about the culture, because of who built it, and I know Jay loves the culture. So it fits and is good and I’m excited about it.
What was 9th Wonder’s reaction to the album?
I think just during the process of making it, we had these moments like, “Yo, this is a dope record,” but I think once we put it all together and really got to live with it and listen, he told me, “This is special. I think we created something really special and something that we’re all proud of.” Everybody said it was a really good energy.
I was talking with Eric G, one of the producers on this record and on the label, and he hadn’t heard it. I had forgotten to send it to him. But I sent it to him, he hit me back like two hours later and he was like, “Yo this album is phenomenal. I listened to it three times over again.” Man, we really came together, everybody, and just no egos. Just music. Just about the music, and really had fun and created something dope. Everybody’s proud about that.
On “Nobody,” you said, “Don’t like all underground, I don’t hate music that isn’t/ I was just making it clap to Waka Flocka last Christmas.” At this point in your career, are you tired of getting that whole underground, backpack label?
Yeah, I’m over it. I’m over it, I’m over it for myself. I’m over it, just for the culture. People like to put you in a box. They call you backpack and it just separates you, and it’s like — just because I have music that’s not necessarily club music doesn’t mean I don’t like to have fun and listen to these records.
It’s the same thing with the culture, if you think about it… Whether it’s gender or religion, it’s just separate. It’s like separating a vibe. If we separate hip-hop and everybody thinks I’m better than this, we can’t get along. It hurts the culture. If you take it back to South Africa and apartheid, and how they came in and separated these people based on their languages — you can’t do it by skin color because they’re black, so you separate their language. It’s like, light skin, dark skin with us in America, how much of a divide that is.
It’s the same thing you do when you take hip-hop and put it in boxes of conscious and this… It’s just hip-hop ,and the only thing that separates is, you’re either dope or you’re not dope. So you know, that’s what I’m over.
Do you feel like there’s a sharp difference in the level of respect you receive from male MCs versus female MCs?
I will say the men reach out more, you know? I have better relationships per sé. That’s not to say that the women don’t respect it. My relationships are better.
Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure, you know? It could be a thing where nobody really knows what it’s like to be an artist, and I think some artists maybe just want to protect themselves or protect their cosigns, or whatever have you. They really want to make sure, like, “Is this the right time?”
So that could be one thing. I haven’t had a chance to really chill with anyone. I talk to Lady of Rage. I have a good relationship with her. Those are probably the only ones. Sometimes, as an artist, you just really want to get to know somebody outside of the music before you go all in with it, and you know, there aren’t as many women as men, so that could be one thing.
I don’t necessarily think it’s all negative, but it is a good question. Like, why don’t you see more females come out? ‘Cause think about all the new females that are out now — when do you have your moments where Jay gives J. Cole a Roc chain?.. Everybody on the West Coast, From The Game, Snoop, passed the torch to Kendrick. What female is doing that now with women? Or when is it going to happen? Doesn’t necessarily have to be me, but is it happening for anybody?
With that said, because you do come from a generation with a long list of females like a Lauryn, like a Latifah, would you be comfortable to get to that place to pass the torch on?
Oh yeah, definitely. And it might be just a different experience for me. They had their own experience, and they definitely supported each other when they were coming up, but I think it’s just a different time that I came up in, and you know, I love to support people that are dope.
I could definitely see myself doing that easily, but that’s because I walked that path where I necessarily didn’t have a bigger female reach out to me and give me that cosign. I know what that would mean if I did get it, you know what I’m saying? But MC Lyte, I watched her interview, she shouted me out. So you know, it’s there. People just do it how they want to do it, and there’s nothing wrong with it.
On “A Rollercoaster Jam Called Love,” the beat changes up three times. Was that intentional to signify the rollercoaster of love or was that just a creative thing?
That record originally only changed twice and the original idea was because I had these two songs that we really loved. We were like, “Man, we can’t have a 25-track album, so what can we creatively do to make it work? Let’s cut them in half and use both of them.”
And then, the latter part of finishing that album, 9th just made this beat and we liked it better, so we switched it out. So he ended up flipping it three times. But what was dope was it does really take you through a rollercoaster ride of love and emotions. Not even that track, if you go from “Rollercoaster” onto “U Used to Love Me” to “Knock on My Door,” like, that’s what love is.
Love is not black and white, it’s complicated. You have the beautiful beginning stages, and you have the getting on my nerves, I don’t really know [stage], then you have the somebody messing up maybe and I don’t know if I want to do this [stage], break up, don’t — if you do, you’re depressed about it maybe, but then you find love again and that’s just the whole idea of it. It is a rollercoaster ride. Nothing is perfect. So you know, it still works in that way.
Because of your status and stature now in hip-hop, has it been difficult for you to maintain certain relationships because you’re ascending so high?
Oh, in my little personal life? No, but that’s because I’m not really in one for it to really affect it. You know, I just think I’m so focused on what I’m doing. It’s not like a goal. You know, they always say you find love when you’re not looking. So I’m just like, if it happens, it happens. I don’t really put any weight or any thought into, “Oh I need a boyfriend.”
I’m happy at the end of the day, for me. But you know, I think as an artist, it happens — especially when you get somebody, and especially if they have a life and they don’t have a passion and you’re their life. As an artist, you’re traveling everywhere. You gotta give your time to so many other people.
That really can hurt a relationship, so I think when the time is right, that’s the one thing I’m gonna look for in a person. Like, “Do you really understand what I do? Do you have your own passion?” Because that’s important. I can’t really be your life. But those are some things I think about.
If you can do a Best of Both Worlds type of album with an R&B artist and a Watch the Throne project with a rapper, which two stars would you choose?
If I had to do one with an R&B artist, I really wanna do one with Erykah Badu.
For one, I’m just a fan — like Mama’s Gun is one of my favorite albums ever, like ever, and I just love her style. Her writing, her voice is amazing, and I feel like we would bounce off each other really well. She’s hip-hop to the core. She’s soul. You know I love some soul stuff, so definitely Erykah. And just as a person, I think she would be fun to work with.
I think that’s important, to be able to even create with people that have your same energy. She has good spirit. I’ve met her and been around her a few times, so I think it would be a dope experience — because of being dope, and both creative, we would make something amazing.
Watch the Throne, Kendrick [Lamar] without a doubt. You know. Both dope lyricists, but both different in our own right. And I think you know the three tracks we’ve done together [“Rock the Bells,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” “Power”] have really been dope, so I would be really curious to hear what a whole project sounds like.
How did you and Kendrick link back up on “Power?”
Yeah, that’s all I’ve been hearing… Man, I recorded some records and there was just something missing and I was like, “He’s the one I think that can fill this void, or this energy that I’m looking for” — and you know, I was telling him, he’s so versatile. He can do so many things. It’s like, “I want to send him this one, but I hear him on this one…” So I just sent him a batch of five records. I was like, “Listen to it, if you hear something that you connect with, let me know.”
And “Power” was one of them and he killed it. Absolutely killed it. But it’s always fun to work with him. It’s easy. You know what I mean? We built a relationship, known each other for years. We both respect each others work, champion each other, so it was just easy — and I had the song, and it just felt right, and he had the time at the time to do it. That’s just how it happened. TDE’s like our extended family, you know what I’m saying?
Aside from this album, what song or album would you say is currently the soundtrack to your life right now?
I’ma say [Erykah Badu’s] Mama’s Gun, maybe.
I’m thinking about the songs on it, the songs like “Time’s a Wastin” — just go get it, don’t waste your time. That’s what I feel like, such in a confident place, like, “Go get it.” “A.D. 2000,” if I’m correct that’s about legacy. I feel like that fits the mood of where I am right now. If I had to pick another one, maybe [JAY Z’s] 4:44.
The actual track or the whole album?
The whole album. Just all the wisdom and knowledge that’s in it, you know? It’s a really coming-of-age album ,and I feel like this is one coming of age for me, but in a different way. It’s a better, complete mature me, but in a different way.