Soon You'll Understand
With a decade in rap behind her, Rapsody is finally getting her flowers while she can still smell them.
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
“I’m going on a titty tour,” Rapsody says to one of her team members with a heavy laugh, as she playfully paces on stage. “I’ma pop a titty and our PR is gonna be a-fucking-mazing! It’s a brisk February afternoon that will soon transform into a frigid evening in Brooklyn, at the deceptively large venue known as Elsewhere, where she’ll perform later that day for the third date of her A Black Woman Created This Tour. Rapsody, whose clad head to toe in a Nike tracksuit that she’s swimming in because all she’s eaten in days are potato chips and cranberry juice, is having a joking debate about flashing her audience for a real-time viral experience.
In any other instance (and with any other artist), this may be a realistic conversation, but given the trajectory and success story of the MC born Marlanna Evans, the idea reeks of irony. The moment is cut short, though, once her DJ rolls the thunderous keys of her “Nina,” a single from her third studio album, through the venue speakers. A fire lights up into Rapsody’s eyes, as if she were just plugged in, and the joke comes full circle as she enters her rhyme and all bets are off. “I drew a line without showing my body, that’s a skill,” she raps. “Bad to the bone and the grill/You’d be dead wrong if looks kill/I’m still on my spiel, in the spirit of L. Hill.”
It’s now two years deep into this movement in which hip-hop and the world at large are finally fixated on giving women their roses. Missy Elliott entered the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Roxanne Shanté got her own Netflix biopic as the music industry once again accepted that multiple women can rap in the same space and at the same time. Women are a hot topic, think-piece fodder and chart-toppers. But Rapsody is a unicorn of sorts, having been here for years while seemingly still fresh.
The Snow Hill, N.C. native got her big break in 2007, when she lent a verse to mentor 9th Wonder’s The Dream Merchant Vol. 2 project. The former first lady of the college rap collective Kooley High, she consistently garnered critical acclaim through a series of solo mixtapes and albums, including 2012’s The Idea of Beautiful, 2017’s Grammy Award-nominated Laila’s Wisdom and her most recent release, 2019’s Eve. Still, this moment for Rapsody feels like a series of firsts, punctuated with this new acceptance that she’s finally blasted past rap’s purview of women.
Perhaps it’s due to the vibe of Eve in its entirety, as the project is a well-rounded ode to the power of Black women, with each track titled as such. Rapsody pieced the project together, having flown to places like Atlanta to play it for T.I. while Queen Latifah was on hand to offer guidance. Latifah returned from rap retirement to appear on the album cut “Hatshepsut;” she’s also responsible for Rapsody changing her album title altogether.
“[Latifah] heard [the title] and she was like, ‘Uh, I don’t know about that. You can come up with something better,’” Rapsody tells. “So, I went home and I thought about it and I came up with Eve. I’m thankful she did that ’cause I don’t think it would have hit as hard.” The album became a critical darling last year, but it also quietly propelled Rapsody into a different stratosphere. The respect levels have changed. She’s no longer at the top of “slept-on” lists but sitting pretty at the crown of “top lyricist lists.” It’s been a long time coming, and her shows reflect that shift.
“I don’t know how to put it into words,” she reflects and then pauses. “Like, it’s different, but I can’t…I can’t necessarily see how it’s different. This is the third date of the tour. The first two shows, like, I’m coming off stage—’cause I’m on stage analyzing everything—everybody’s like, ‘Yo, that was amazing. Don’t you see how it’s different? The people that you’re affecting, how you’re affecting them, whatchu bringing?’ I’m just like, I can’t see it yet, you know? But I’m just in the middle of it, I think. I’m deep in my art bag right now.” Her hands are heavily into every aspect of her career—from the obvious music to even stage and creative direction. There’s a vision here, and like most things with Rapsody, she’s sticking to it.
Three dates into her A Black Woman Created This Tour, and she’s secured some milestones that already made the remaining 22 dates well worth it for her. The greatest moment was when Rap invited an 8-year-old fan named Zyah on stage to rap alongside the her at a Washington D.C. tour stop. For Rapsody, opportunities like these are why she even entered the business. “That’s the purpose,” she explains. “I got into this because I loved it, but that’s what kept me in it, is the youth because I thought about when I was young and just the pleasure of seeing Lauryn Hill on TV. It’s just like, man, I could only imagine what that would’ve been like for me to meet her at that age, let alone to rap on the stage with her.”
The Brooklyn show would have a whole different surprise when The Roots front man and lyrical legend Black Thought graced the stage to fire off a freestyle in the middle of Rapsody’s set later that evening. That’s the kind of charm that she possesses. Rap can serve as a role model for young Black girls rhyming while having a legendary Black man flank her on stage rapping, both equally in awe of her. Again, a unicorn.
“I’ve had the benefit of seeing her transform for many years now,” says Sean “DJ Face” Armstrong, her touring DJ. “It’s been so organic, you know? It’s been so real, authentic and it just mirrors everything that she is.”
It’s been one hell of a ride, though. There’s a unique storm of sorts that any female artist has to weather when she makes a firm stance to maintain her identity, especially within rap music. For Rapsody, her biggest hurdle was exiting the “female rapper” box. “Yeah, we are women, but our skill level is compared to anybody: man, woman, child, alien. It doesn’t matter,” she explains. After over a decade, it seems as though the tides have finally changed for her on that front. “That feels good to me,” she continues, “to have to fight so long and now I’ve reached a point where people just respect you for your skill.”
But even that comes with its own problems, particularly when a cookie-cutter design for women is presumably the most lucrative. There were times where Rapsody was snubbed, overlooked and undervalued. She felt it even last year when a project as potent as Eve didn’t receive any Grammy nominations.
“I mean it got tough,” Rapsody openly admits. “You get to those points and you don’t feel like things are moving, you don’t feel like you’re making any headway…that people care. But I kept telling myself, ‘Man, if I do anything outside of me, I will fall out of love with hip-hop and I can’t allow myself to fall out of love with hip-hop. Like, I can’t let you take that from me.’ Fine, I might not be famous and I may not be rich. But at the end of the day, I’ll still be happy and I’ll have peace of mind and I’m able to wake up and look myself in the mirror and like what I’m looking back at that reflection. And that’s what’s kept me grounded.”
She also has a strong team beside her. Aligning with Jamla Records figurehead 9th Wonder early on became her mainstay, though in July of 2017, she added a diamond to her resume when she signed to the label umbrella of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint. Having both 9th and Jay in her corner as mentors has been a blessing, especially navigating through this next iteration of her career. “9th is my biggest teacher; I wouldn’t be the artist that I am, I wouldn’t be where I am without him instilling in me, giving me all the knowledge—taking me and flying me with him in those early days, just so I can see and experience,” Rapsody conveys. “Jay-Z, the same thing—reminding me that they’ve been where I’m trying to go so they always bring a new perspective where I don’t have to feel through the dark so much.” It’s a combination of the two men reminding her that with new levels comes a whole other set of obstacles, but success is within reach. “Don’t let the industry control you,” she adds. “Control the industry.”
There’s also a new member on her team, Shakim Compere, long-time Flava Unit partner of Queen Latifah. Compere is a missing piece to this puzzle for Rapsody; he provides a new perspective at the perfect time. She recounts a story about Shakim’s first encounter with the late Tupac Shakur that sticks with her as a reminder that she’s on the right path.
“At the time, Tupac had on all silver, right? [Shakim] was like, ‘What’s your 20-year goal?’” Rapsody tells. “And he said Tupac said, ‘I wanna go from silver to gold to platinum. And he said he saw Tupac years later, after everything, and he had on platinum and [Shakim] was like, ‘Man! You got what you wanted! The platinum and the diamonds!’ And he said ’Pac looked at him and said, ‘Sha, if I could, I’d go back to silver.’ I think it’s a powerful story and it just reminded [me] that you have to remain rooted in your purpose and why you did it. My purpose was to touch people and as long as I’m doing that, then I’m happy. Whatever else—accolades, acclaim, money, fame—that comes from that is the bonus, it’s the blessing. But touching the people is why I got in it.”
As soon as Rapsody’s feet exit the stage for the last time on this tour in March, she’s heading right back to the studio to work on her fourth studio album. While she’s pretty tight-lipped about the details of the project, she foresees a release in 2020. However, her next goal is to venture into acting.
“Last year, I was getting sent a lot of scripts, but I asked my agent to hold off because when I say I wanna get into it, I wanna do it right and I wanna respect the craft,” she expresses, having already been guided by a pioneer who made the shift from hip-hop to Hollywood. “Queen Latifah give me some tips on acting,” she affirms proudly. “She’s already given me some tips about other things I wanted to do like writing scripts and getting behind the camera and being creative. I’m just waiting for the time where I can slow down a little bit to just focus some attention on doing those things.”
After Rapsody finishes her sound check, she thanks everyone in the building by name and promptly pours herself into a Chevy Tahoe, en route to an Apple Store interview before she has to return to Elsewhere for the show. With her fingers full of rings—including Nefertiti and her own initials of R.A.P.—she shifts the braids piled on her head back into place and lets out a heavy sigh. Rapsody is hungry and she’s tired, but when asked if she’s happy, her eyes light back up like she’s plugged back in on that stage.
“I’m extremely happy,” she declares with sincerity. “I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been. I don’t feel like I have to force anything. I don’t feel unsure. I know who I am, I know what I want wholly.” It took her long enough to get here, and while Rapsody may not have all of the fame, she has something that most artists in the spotlight don’t have: peace. And it’s the kind of peace that comes from self-preservation. “I’ve grown so much, not as an artist, but as a person and coming full circle,” she asserts with an energetic smile. “I’m doing what I love every day. My family is happy for me. My team is happy; we’re well. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2020 issue including our Future cover story, in which he speaks on his Life Is Good album, Lil Yachty discusses his new album, Lil Boat 3, and the respect he deserves, Van Jones talks about his love for hip-hop, the brewing, new hip-hop scene in New York, Show & Proves with Jack Harlow and Key Glock, YBN Cordae in What's Happenin and more.
See Photos of Rapsody From XXL Magazine's Spring 2020 Interview