Rapsody: Soul Power
Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody’s second studio album, is a melodic cocktail reserved for quiet moments, stirring something deep within. Lyricism at its most poetic, storytelling at its most raw, there is freedom in the North Carolina rapper’s words.
In a landmark year for rap full-lengths Laila’s Wisdom picked up two Grammy nominations, one of which made her the fifth woman ever to be nominated for best rap album at the awards ceremony. Embracing vulnerability and strength at once, the album tells cinematic tales of love and power. On Black and Ugly, Rapsody learns to love herself, while on U Used to Love Me she falls out of love with another. The seam is bound by producer 9th Wonder, who colours Rapsody’s diary entries with soul samples from Nina Simone, Otis G Johnson, The Meter and Bootsy’s Rubber Band, while the album’s guest vocals include Busta Rhymes, Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar.
When I meet with Rapsody during her visit to London, it feels like encountering a penpal in person. In many ways I feel like I know Rapsody, as Laila’s Wisdom opens a frank conversation about her fears, frustrations, and the intimate revelations most people don’t disclose so freely. So I approach the conversation guard down. “We don’t do handshakes, we do hugs,” Rapsody says. Leaning forward with a wide grin across her lips, her voice is soft with a southern twang. Wearing jeans and a Roc Nation hat, she exudes the same calming energy that scents her music.
After a few moments of small talk, I quote a lyric from her track Ridin – “Went searching for myself, and I ain’t find shit” – and I ask her if she feels she’s made progress. The response comes quickly. “I’ve found a big portion of who I am,” she says. “But most importantly, I’m comfortable in living and owning it. Growing up I was a popular kid, and I think I used to dim my light so other people could feel comfortable, but now it’s like ‘no, let all the beautifulness shine and glow and be confident and walk in that!”
“It’s challenging fighting with yourself. It can be frustrating,” she goes on. “But I think anything that’s uncomfortable is growth, and once you start, other people appreciate you. They say, ‘I like this open you, this butterfly out of a cocoon you.’”
Rapsody was raised in the small farm town of Snow Hill, North Carolina, which has the total population of a large secondary school. She once felt that, as a woman in the South, there was a future foretold for her: one of high school and college, white-collar careers and eventual marriage. So she attended North Carolina State University, majored in Accounting, and set upon the road mapped out for her by generations prior.
“Making it in this business is extremely hard, making it as a female is even harder, and as a black female whose skin tone is darker, it's even harder. My path is different from your average artist”
But she soon took a sharp left turn, falling for hip-hop and abandoning accounting to wander the back roads of a tough music industry with the encouragement and support of 9th Wonder. “Making it in this business is extremely hard, making it as a female is even harder, and as a black female whose skin tone is darker, it’s even harder,” she tells me. “My path is totally different from your average artist, and it messed with me mentally because I was so concerned with what others were doing as opposed to trying to find my way.”
Rapsody released her first project in 2008. While she earned respect as an underground figure and scored credible collaborations, fame didn’t arrive until she was in her early 30s, when her verse on Kendrick’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly propelled her name to wider consciousness.
“I’m sure a lot of artists may not want to admit it, but we definitely go through it,” she says of her struggles with self-doubt. “Some people hold on longer, but it crosses your mind, like ‘maybe this is too hard, am I wasting my time? I’ve spent 10 years in this, am I going to spend my whole life trying to get this and never get it? And then look up and I’m 50 years old and broke with nothing to show for it?’ The saying is: fall down seven times, get up eight.”
“9th [Wonder] would say to me ‘your path is not going to be like anyone else’s.’ You know that saying? Come to the fork in the road and you go right or left. Or you could go knock down a tree and make your own path. I had to knock down the trees to figure it out. That’s what it was. I put the blinders on and I could only look forward and not care about what was happening to the left and right of me – it didn’t matter. I just fell in love with what I was doing.”
We fall silent for a moment. In my peripheral I see the label publicist and gather that our conversation, at least in person, is coming to a close. “Who is Rapsody?” I ask. Her face settles, she leans in and looks inward. “She can be quiet,” she says, “she’s loyal, she cares for people. She likes to make people feel good but that’s a quality she had to find balance in because she can be a people pleaser. In pleasing other people, you dim your light sometimes.”
Photography: Mike Chalmers
Laila’s Wisdom is out now via Jamla / Roc Nation