Stop Calling Rapsody the “Female Kendrick”Posted September 25, 2017 by Donna-Claire Chesman
Rapsody made an album so human that tracks like “Knock On My Door” are near-voyeuristic as we observe her timidly flirting with a neighbor. These tender moments amplify the leveling impact of “Jesus Coming,” the most heart-wrenching album closer of the year. Themes of death and devastation weigh heavily on us as the sample plays out and we’re looped back into the brighter days of the title track. Having made an album that’s both a lifeline and a spiritual experience, with Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody cemented her place in the rap canon.
This past weekend, I engaged in a handful of album discussions, both online and off—if you could believe that. Details from each conversation pointed to Rapsody having crafted a soon-to-be classic: no one could pick a single favorite song, everyone was fawning over the minutia of her inflections or a beat switch, and everyone was moved by the album’s end. Though the album was met with open arms and overwhelmingly positive reception, one coded compliment was continuously rehashed: “Rapsody created a 'girl To Pimp a Butterfly.'”
No, she didn’t.
Rapsody gave hip-hop fans a gift with Laila’s Wisdom. Reducing the love and emotional labor she poured into this album is dangerous. It assumes that Rapsody lacks originality, that any allusions to jazz and live instrumentation now belong exclusively to Kendrick Lamar, and that Black art is monolithic. None of these things are true. Holding any of them to be true is a gross disservice to the artists and to the genre. Worse off, this line of thinking reduces the messages of both albums and flattens both artists down to the most rudimentary facets of their identities.
This type of commentary also implies that it’s so inconceivable for a woman to also be a prolific emcee and that a male artist must be attached to make sense of the situation. Most of the people I spoke with intended their comparison to be high praise for Rapsody: “Kendrick is really good, and so is she.” Rapsody is not the "female Kendrick." She deserves more than a male qualifier. She is really good, one of the best, which is a title she’s earned with her own mic skills.
To suggest that Rapsody made anything other than Laila’s Wisdom is nowhere near a compliment; it devalues her success. This type of veiled sexism is a reminder that we need to learn how to cede the floor to the women who give their all for hip-hop. This is a reminder that we all need to practice giving back.
Unfortunately, Rapsody’s experience is not isolated. When Noname’s Telefone—a pastel-colored confrontation of grief—was released in 2016, she was met with much of the same. A host of fans described Noname as “female Chance The Rapper,” and Telefone as “girl Acid Rap,” because we’re gendering mixtapes now, too. Not only do these projects have next to nothing in common in terms of theme, Chance and Noname have few similarities in flow or delivery.
Wise to what was coming, Noname penned a verse tackling the topic of “female rappers” in 2013. In her tumultuous years before Telefone, Noname dropped “Samaritan,” where she talks to herself with an accusatory tone: “You a female rapper. Don't rap about that shit / You 'spose to be a bad bitch / Or at least a little confident.”
“That shit” referred to Noname’s insecurities, her use of music and performance to cope with her fears, and a struggle with body image. On “Samaritan,” Noname explains how she feels trapped by the socially constructed rules that women in hip-hop must follow in order to succeed. On Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody takes a young Noname’s fears and dispels them across fourteen tracks.
Laila’s Wisdom is a masterful and empowering album. Rapsody boldly spends one hour and five minutes rapping about everything Noname felt she could never rap about. Instead of worrying over which artist made what version of whose album, we should be having conversations about the numerous doors Laila’s Wisdom is sure to open for aspiring artists.