“Power given to yourself is what’s valuable, what matters. I spent too much of my time and career focusing on chasing power from other people. And you don’t need it.” —Rapsody, “Rapsody's power: How the US rapper made one of 2017's greatest albums”
Without question, Rapsody makes life music, but when music is your escape, life music can become daunting. During a 2017 interview with The Independent, Rapsody said her writing process was modeled after horror movies—she loves the twists. Suspense and swerve are what makes her GRAMMY-nominated album Laila’s Wisdom so potent, evocative, and true to life. Suspense is also what makes the record so daunting. We wind through trials of self-love, romantic love, life lost, and heavy truths that we otherwise suppress to make it through our day-to-day lives. Rapsody navigates each pivot with grace, but that does not make the record any less striking and, in the best way, fearsome.
No disrespect to Rap, but I cannot stomach horror movies, not because I’m opposed to being scared, but because the sound of someone being helpless, screaming, and suffering is vile to me in an unspeakable way. Horror movies strike at guttural emotions I cannot immediately confront and reconcile. When Laila’s Wisdom arrives at the closing track, “Jesus Coming,” those same emotions overtake me. The album is gorgeous, tender, and true to life. That is, it ends on a pungent note of powerlessness—not because Rapsody is weak, but because life doesn’t ask.
I am not simply paralyzed by life’s irreverence; I altogether refuse to accept it as fact. To witness powerful people in powerless situations is nothing short of emotionally repulsive to me. I think of my grandmother, who’s lived enough lives for 100 women in under 80 years, and how she is on the last legs of her life. I think of how immobile she is, how her flesh is rotting and she has neither the awareness nor the wherewithal to help herself. She is powerless and decaying, and in much the same way, my inability to save her puts us in the same boat. The wailing at the end of “Jesus Coming,” too, is a type of psychologically taxing truth that strikes discomfort down to my bone marrow.
To press play on the album is to accept the final notes of “Jesus Coming,” to accept senseless death, and to accept powerlessness as inescapable. For months, the finality of the album kept me away from Laila’s Wisdom altogether, but avoidance only empowers fear. In truth, Laila’s Wisdom exists to empower the listener.
What Rapsody and Laila’s Wisdom teach us, then, is that powerlessness is a fact of life, and to accept it is not to resign, but to prepare yourself to move forward. For every instance of powerlessness that plagues the record, there is an equal and brighter moment of overcoming. In 14 tracks, Rapsody shows us that we may be at the mercy of circumstance, but we are not weak.
Looking first at the opening verse of “Power,” Rap covers all the ways we attempt to cope with powerlessness, be it guns or acting out of spite. “Guns make us feel powerful but they don’t do no good,” she projects. That is to say: when the veneer of perceived strength is gone, we are as powerless as we began. The only difference, be it by way of a gun or something else, is that someone may have gotten hurt in the process of our own reckonings.
Even the hectic and grating beat switch when Kendrick Lamar comes in signifies the futility of fighting against powerlessness. Starting with “Power” and permeating through all of Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody subtly preaches that acceptance is our only option. The only way to process pain is head-on. Any other approach will end up costing us our sanity, our health, and at worst, our lives.
The narrative of acceptance as a life-or-death scenario continues on “Nobody,” wherein Rap broaches the discomfort of accepting our mortality (“Don’t nobody know how many but we know our days are numbered”) while also admitting to the pressure that comes with self-reflection (“I get winded by the weight of it all / ‘Cause everybody talkin’ shit but don’t know nothin’ at all”). Interfacing with death while understanding we do not have the ultimate control over the length of our lives proves Rapsody to be sage in her approach. “Nobody” quietly asks, “How can we survive when death is a fact?” and through the poise and stunning quality of Rapsody’s music, she answers with a resounding: “We simply must.”
When Rapsody speaks to the weight of the unknown, she also kindly reminds us that she is just another human being and not an assumed savior. With that commonality and humility established between artist and listener, Laila’s Wisdom takes powerlessness from a ubiquitous and looming entity and devolves it to something as common as the sun rising. The power of powerlessness is no more. The record is a reminder that all we are is a gang of people hoping to do our best, and the acceptance of powerlessness cannot strip that goodness. Instead, Rapsody is demonstrating that within acceptance there is undeniable strength.
All of this brings us to the climax of the album, “Jesus Coming,” one of the most wrenching songs of the decade. This is Rapsody’s evocative horror twist. The record begins with gunshots and sirens, a twist of fate from the moments earlier where Anderson .Paak sang of posturing and invulnerability on “OooWee.” Amber Narvan’s tender vocals paired with the tortured scraggle of the Otis G. Johnson sample do not simply add weight to the track, they take it from biting to eviscerating and corroding as if to say: “There is no greater pain than in this moment.”
Rapsody is breathless and insatiable on this record, her delivery something of a sprint or an attempt to outlast the gravity of the music. From three perspectives, Rapsody catalogs the final thoughts of unassuming shooting victims. As she recounts toys bought, new widows, and at one point slips into a childish intonation, we’re met with the grandest swell of life seconds before it ceases to be. Living suddenly feels so dense and precious, and hollowed and intangible. Listening to “Jesus Coming,” all we want is for the story to end before it ever began, but that can never be. The practicing of accepting this truth is the ultimate stress test.
“Jesus Coming” fades with the sample. There is an ascending quality to the final 10 seconds as we hear Johnson sing “It’s time to go” with a weather-worn growl. Then there is a moment of silence—an imposed peace—and the record begins anew because pain is to be moved through and cannot last forever.
The ultimate lesson of Laila’s Wisdom is that the acceptance of powerlessness can and should become the practice of patience, something Rapsody has been speaking on for the better part of the decade. “I’d say early on just being patient,” she told Sonic Bids in 2014. “Focusing and honing in on what you want to do. Understanding that it takes time to get to where you want to get.” Though she was discussing her career trajectory, the truth that pain and powerlessness are simply par for the course is universal. As we’ve seen time and time again, from Rapsody’s rise to Roc Nation signee and GRAMMY nominee, patience is always rewarded.
Our energy is limited, and no one can afford to throw it toward the path of most resistance. To accept we will be powerless is to cultivate a future strength and wash our hands of tension. Revisiting Laila’s Wisdom, for how rattling “Jesus Coming” continues to be, we’re blessed with the wisdom that powerlessness is not to be feared. Reveling in the warmth and stunning nature of the album while having to confront that final track is the ultimate lesson in giving and taking. Life does not ask, sure, but with Laila’s Wisdom, we also learn that life does not solely take.