“Just leaving the Roc office,” Rapsody texted, a brief update that a bit more time was needed before our scheduled phone interview.
I read the message while her 2011 mixtape, Thank H.E.R. Now, softly hummed from my headphones. The phrase “Culture Over Everything” is written on the album’s art, a slightly smaller font underneath the mixtape’s title. It’s a principle Rapsody has carried like a proud banner through the throes of rap's underground labyrinth since arriving onto blogs as a promising wordsmith from Snow Hill, North Carolina.
Corporate label offices are rarely regarded as space where rap artistry matters most; commercialism has often eclipsed culture, but in Rapsody’s case it’s a certain trust that’s been formed over the years. Whatever room she enters, hip-hop is being represented.
In mid-July of 2016, Rapsody announced her deal with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation. The marriage between Jamla’s flagship lyricist and Jay’s imprint seemed surreal. While her accomplishments with the legendary 9th Wonder and her Jamla Records family should be applauded and not undermined, Rap was still one of the true independent titans who had spent her career without the assistance of a major infrastructure.
J. Cole––another North Carolina offspring––has made mountains moves and skies split during his tenure with Roc Nation, but when it comes to labels, there are far more horror stories of emcees falling victim to demands for radio singles, album pushbacks due to low expectations, and the dreaded, merciless shelf where music can rot for years, sometimes eternity.
Hip-hop fans know all too well what can happen when a record label gets involved. Just ask Clipse or Lupe or Saigon. That’s what made Rapsody’s deal so exciting yet worrisome; anything was possible and nothing seemed certain.
One of my first questions, once our interview began, was about Rap's feelings about joining a bigger label. I was surprised by a spirited, “I love it.” She elaborated on how the people at Roc Nation are a supportive family who is about the artist and the artist’s creative vision: “It’s the perfect fit. We all have the same goal, the same vision, and approach things in the same way. That’s what I enjoy about it. You hear all these horror stories about going to a bigger label, losing creative control, and this person is not happy, but that hasn’t been our experience.” All told, the label union between Jamla Records and Roc Nation has been a pleasant partnership.
Creative control is one of the biggest issues to cause friction between artist and label, especially during the process of creating an album, though before she even signed her deal, Rapsody’s forthcoming sophomore album, Laila’s Wisdom, was almost complete. For the better of two years she has lived in the studio, crafting, molding, and fine-tuning her first full-length album since her 2012 debut, The Idea Of Beautiful.
Despite having seven quality projects in an ever-growing discography, Rapsody has only released one album. She explained how approach and mindset are different per project; for example, 2016's Crown EP was a fun and easy project that took about three weeks to complete compared to two years for Laila’s Wisdom. It's a perfect contrast that echoes similar comments made by A$AP Ferg during his recent interview on The Breakfast Club about the defining separation of album and mixtape.
"This one is the most different because I took the longest on this one. I experimented with beats. I just grabbed anything and went in the studio day in and day out trying different things. I didn’t box myself in, I got some things in the vault that people wouldn’t expect. I tried to play with my voice, I tried to play with melodies. Bringing Terrace Martin in to make the songs bigger. Take them to another place with live instruments.
"We've all grown together with this project. We all came into it with the mindset of just making music; do whatever felt right. I’ve taken everything I’ve learned and did what felt right. I lived in the moment with this one.
"Once we found the one and the sound, we built around it. Once we did that we added Terrace Martin and asked for his ear and input. Just playing with different ideas and bouncing off each other. This whole counsel of me, and 9th, Terrace, and Guru all in a room—it was a lot of creativity in there."
Having 9th Wonder, Young Guru, and Terrace Martin in one room as executive producers is like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Gregg Popovich all on one court coaching and giving tips to a promising basketball star. No matter how great the artist is, the best art comes from allowing ideas to exist amongst many creative minds. Rapsody was blessed with a brain trust who have all been a part of legendary moments in hip-hop and could assist in directing to make the best possible project.
When discussing the inspiration for Laila’s Wisdom, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was named as a major source of encouragement and creative musing. Even if Rapsody wasn’t a featured guest on the album, the project was still considerably impactful. Great art inspires great art, and Kendrick had a hand in pushing the album's direction just by releasing his most avant-garde album to date.
Two weeks away from Laila's release, veteran emcee Busta Rhymes made the bold claim that Rapsody is about to release the best album he has heard from top to bottom in the last 10 years. As one of the many artists featured on the LP, it's possible his praise might be a bit biased—or it’s just that good. Busta is far from the album's only notable guest—esteemed names like Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid, and Black Thought can all be found in the liner notes.
“This album is colorful, mad colorful. It takes you on a journey in a sense. When people listen to it, regardless of if they like it or not, one thing they can appreciate is that I drew from a lot of different places,” Rapsody explained, admitting about 80 to 100 songs were created during the making of this album. Not full songs, sometimes just drafts and ideas, but the two years were filled with studio sessions, beats, and rhymes. How they were able to narrow down to 14 tracks is a miracle in itself.
When discussing album sales, lyricism, and commercial viability, Rapsody expressed one of the most endearing qualities about hip-hop: the expanding musical landscape. “Everybody has a lane and a purpose. There’s room for everybody and that’s the beautiful part of it. We can all coexist together,” Rapsody says, an outlook that isn’t new but is always a needed reminder that there’s room for both Kendrick and Future, Rapsody and Cardi B.
When asked about her lane and purpose, in particular, without hesitation she painted the perfect picture:
"Musically, I’m the lyrical rapper. I’m the storyteller. I think I have a lane, especially for women, to represent another side of what a woman is in hip-hop. I’m just another representation and another option of what you can be. What a woman looks like, what sexy looks like. Women can rap and men can relate to women. To tell those untold stories and be that part of the culture that is still lyrical and still appreciate sampled beats. That’s my lane. People aren’t coming to me for the party records. That’s not my lane, my lane is life music.
"I always say this and GQ [fellow Jamla artist] told me this, “We can have music for Friday and Saturday to party to, but in life we got Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, what is happening on those days? That’s my purpose. Not to say you won’t hear Rap make a fun record, but I’m going to talk about life in my music."
Life music. The soundtrack to your Sunday-through-Thursday is true to her artistry. Turn-up music has a place, a purpose, but every night shouldn’t be spent indulging in parties and bullshit. There’s much more to life, and Rapsody offers a slice of it for listeners. A healthy diet must consist of more than just junk and fast food.
When asked about expectations for the album, Rapsody laughed softly before delving into a story about a meeting with Def Jam. “The head of Def Jam asked me, 'What did I expect them to do? What did I want?',” Rapsody says. “And I told him, at the end of the day, I just want to be heard, I just want people to listen. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. At least you listened. I just want to inspire. At the end of the day, that’s all I want.”
As she completed her tale all I could think of was the Kendrick lyric: “The way I’m rewarded, well that’s God’s decision.”
"I just hope and expect to be doing this for a long time. 'Cause I love it. This is my passion, this is what I love, and this is what gives me life. I just expect and hope to be doing this for a long time."
There’s a wholesomeness to Rapsody that has always been apparent, but during our short conversation she truly came off as a genuine soul. She wants to rap, inspire, and be a symbol the culture can view with pride. When talking about being overwhelmed by her career, she stressed how creating is easy but the business can be a strain. Chasing after what feels right can add so much pressure outside of the artistry. It can become overwhelming and strip away all the fun.
Rapsody has had a career full of these moments, but she has an excellent mindset to continue pushing forward:
"I signed with Jamla in 2009-2010 on a professional level. My journey hasn’t been an easy journey. And that’s not to say anyone has—everybody has a different path. Mine hasn’t been like anyone else's either. But knowing that struggle and everyone who rooted you on and helped you get here and everyone who threw stones and told you you couldn’t do it, you get to a point where you realize how far you’ve come and gotta keep going. You don’t want to let anyone down. I go through moments where I overthink it. It’s just too much.
"You gotta pull yourself back. I’m grateful and thankful to have a team around me to pull me back. I didn’t get to this point so something can happen five steps down. You look back and see how the dots connected and why certain things didn’t happen so other doors can open. You can’t go against God's timing. That’s what I tell myself."
Rapsody has been patient, she has persevered, and all the while slaying the microphone. I can’t speak for God but it feels like Rapsody’s time is upon us. What makes it such a joy to witness is knowing she is still putting the culture over everything.
Laila’s Wisdom will be released on September 22. You can pre-order the album on iTunes.
By Yoh, aka Yoh's Wisdom, aka @Yoh31