Rapsody knows what people think of her.
The fluid, expressive emcee from the tiny town of Snow Hill, N.C. has become one of those artists people think they can conveniently pin down or put in a box. Her name gets tossed around whenever those interminable “female rapper” debates trend on Twitter. Her smooth delivery and introspective subject matter are signifiers for those who still stereotype “conscious rappers.” And her love of Lauryn Hill and MC Lyte seem to affirm a “real hip-hop” aesthetic that old heads just seem to gush over.
But like any great artist, Rapsody isn’t beholden to anyone’s narrow framing.
“I really think that they think that I’m some kumbaya, super-conscious backpacker—they like to put me in that box,” she says with a snicker. We’re sitting in a lounge at the Roc Nation offices in Manhattan on the kind of balmy August day in NYC that feels hotter than the alleged 79 degrees listed on my iPhone, and her easygoing confidence belies a woman in a great creative space—and one who isn’t all that preoccupied with the stereotypes that have surrounded her since she burst onto the scene over a decade ago.
“I know what they try to make ‘conscious’ mean,” she says in reference to a tag that gets tossed her way often. “But they don’t really understand the meaning of what ‘conscious’ is. I’m so multi-dimensional. I choose to make the music I make because that’s what I’m drawn to and I’m good at. I’m really into poetry and I talk about the world around me. But I also like to go to the club and shake my ass sometimes or cut up and I like to drink sometimes. I like to be sexy some days—I’m not a tomboy all the time. I’m super-versatile; I can do any and everything.”
She laughs at the caricature some people assume she embodies. “They think I’m just this—I go home and light incense, I watch documentaries on the Black Panthers every day, and wear earth tones only. I read books from 1 a.m. Asking me, ‘What’s the last book you read?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know—I don’t be readin’ that much.’ I buy books, I got ‘em on the shelf, Imma read ‘em one day! I’m just the girl next door. The same things you like to do, I like to do. I just don’t do ’em to the extreme.”
Born Marlanna Evans, the Grammy-nominated artist doesn’t seem to dwell in extremes in any facet of her life or art. Her small-town upbringing is still evident even after she’s conquered so much; her perceptive world view is one driven by patience and empathy and her art is informed by that same spirit. Her new album EVE is inspired by women who have served as signposts and guiding lights for Rapsody throughout her life, from Phylicia Rashad to Afeni Shakur. And alongside stellar work from her longtime production guru 9th Wonder, the album features an inspired selection of collaborators. D’Angelo and GZA show up on lead single “IBTIHAJ” (named after Ibtihaj Muhammad—the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab while competing for the U.S. in the Olympics); singer-songwriter Elle Varner guests on “MICHELLE,” and Queen Latifah drops by for a spot on “HATSHEPSUT,” a track named for the female Egyptian pharaoh. It was Latifah who led to the album’s title.
“She really came in to be Big Sis,” Rapsody shares with a smile. “I had a whole different name for the album and she inspired me to change it, to push me to do something better. That’s just Queen. After that she was like, ‘Come to my house. Come to the studio.’ A lot of artists don’t do that. We’d probably been talking only a week and she was like, ‘Come to my house?’ That just showed me a lot. She’s super-supportive, gives me advice. She’ll call me out the blue and be like, ‘What you think about this?’ or, ‘I was just thinking about you, just checking on you and how things are doing.’ She really took me under her wing and that means a lot because I look up to her so much. And especially as a female, you want to have another female that’s walked the path that you can call and look up to for support.”
Support for and from women has always been a major point for Rapsody, one that she touched on in 2017 when she revealed that she’d gotten more support from men than women until that point in her career. She was roundly criticized in some circles (this author admittedly misinterpreted her stance back then). But now she says that there were missed nuances to both her experiences and what she was trying to express: “I have to be more aware of how I word it,” she says, reflecting on the semi-controversy. Things have changed—and the catalyst was somewhat unlikely.
“The biggest shift is when Cardi B shouted me out,” Rapsody reveals. Before Cardi B name-checked her on Twitter, she says, “my analytics were 70 percent men, 30 percent women. After the shout-out, it was 54/46. What I learned from that is, it’s not that women don’t wanna support and don’t listen, it’s exposure. They don’t always know where to find [my music], or there’s so much music, you don’t even know where to begin. I went in my [social media] comments and a lot of people was like, ‘Man, before Cardi shouted you out, I never heard about you—I love your music. I feel crazy that I’m just finding out about you.’”
Rapsody also defends male hip-hop heads against criticism of their alleged preference for hyper-sexed rap vixens.
“People will say, ‘Men are always objectifying women’ but I’ll tell them too, that’s somewhat of a false narrative—because I can go to a show, and if 80 percent or 70 percent of the fanbase there are men, and I’m fully clothed, what is that saying to you? If that, at first, was my biggest fanbase, what does that say? It’s not all men that objectify women. And there are some women that may want to live a fantasy, too. They may not dress that way, but [think], ‘Yo, I can see myself as a bad chick, too.’ And ain’t nothing wrong with that. But to put it all on men, it’s just like, let’s really be honest and understand and see the full spectrum in everything that’s going on. Be open to listening to the brothers in the same way that we want them to listen to us.”
Rapsody’s open ear and mind are front and center on EVE, and both her reverence for Latifah and respect for Cardi are indicative of the project’s spirit. She recognizes the power in black women, and in black culture. The idea of ownership weighs heavily on her mind, as she sits in the home office of Jay-Z’s world-famous brand. Recognizing the massive commercial clout in hip-hop means wrestling with the reality that so much of what controls the industry looks nothing like the streets that continue to give birth to the art. She wants the fans to always remember that a lot of those who control what you see and hear don’t look like the faces in the videos and on the album cover.
“It’s just being aware,” she says of the uncomfortable racial dynamic that often lands white faces at the head of the table, overseeing black art. “Putting it in the music and educating [people] that, yes, hip-hop is all-inclusive and we welcome people in it. But understand, this is our culture and we have to be aware of who we give it to and who we give power within it, where they are allowed to dictate what we should be listening to. Understand who controls the TV and the radio and whatever platform.”
She wants people to stay aware of “who controls the TV and the radio,” she says, and wants to educate people “who may not think about it or know the things that I know,” and use that knowledge to artists’ advantage: “To be like a Nipsey Hussle and own your own. To be like a Jay-Z, where he creates a Roc Nation and creates opportunity for a Meek Mill to be one of the voices within it who gives power to it. We need more Jay-Zs, we need more like Nas who run Mass Appeal. We need these things because it’s our culture and we should take ownership of it and not give it away so easily.”