Guided by Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody Goes Toe to Toe Against Hip-Hop’s Biggest Names at The Grammys | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Guided by Laila’s Wisdom, Rapsody Goes Toe to Toe Against Hip-Hop’s Biggest Names at The Grammys 

Drum-majoring her crew from the driver's seat of a tricked-out droptop, Raleigh rap icon Rapsody practically incandesces in the video for her 2017 track "Sassy," fluidly directed by Chad Tennies and Mac Grant, the Atlanta team behind paradigmatic clips for Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert's "Bad and Boujee" and Dram feat. Lil Yachty's "Broccoli."

Shifting from her more supremely composed persona as a precise rhymer, she plays a party-startin' Big Sis in a bright "Black By Popular Demand" hoodie. With her kinetic boost of energy, the coolly wiggling funk track—produced by Eric "Eric G" Gabouer from Jamla Records production squad the Soul Council—glows like a neon vernacular bop.

What's more, in an upset of Valvano-'83 proportions, "Sassy" is nominated for a Best Rap Song Grammy, in a group with Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, Cardi B, and Danger Mouse feat. Run the Jewels and Big Boi. Her overlooked tour de force, Laila's Wisdom, is also up for Rap Album of the Year, alongside far more high-profile records by Lamar, Jay-Z, Migos, and Tyler, the Creator. In fact, she's only the fifth woman to be nominated in the category.

So, could this be the year that a woman wins Rap Album of the Year? Yes, you read that right: no woman, in twenty-three years of the Rap Album of the Year category, has ever won. Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a clear analog to Laila's Wisdom, won Album of the Year in 1999, but was not nominated for Rap Album; instead, it was placed in R&B. Why? For the same reason that fantasizing about murdering a woman (Eminem) has been a better winning rap Grammy gambit than being a woman. There are clearly some nasty viruses in the Recording Academy software—notably racism, sexism, youthism, late capitalism, et al.

But this year, the Academy allowed online voting and instituted a review process for rap nominations to better reflect the fullness of the genre. Those changes likely favored Rapsody. The record industry's splintering commercial base also probably assisted, especially with a record that's sold just seventeen thousand equivalent-units thus far. Her label, the Triangle-based indie Jamla, signing a fifty-fifty partnership deal with Jay-Z's Roc Nation, might've tilted some scales. And the cosign of Lamar, a seven-time Grammy winner couldn't have hurt, either. (Both he and Rapsody have appeared on each other's albums.) But considering her career, since Kooley High's debut, The Summer Sessions EP in 2008, has been an extended tease and admitted grind—shouts to Foot Action day jobs!—who cares how she got here?

Laila's Wisdom is an artistic capstone in the purest sense. Her eighth full-length record—including mixtapes, sprawling EPs, and proper albums—in just seven years, it both showcases and advances her skills. Still, slow sales and a certain critical framing have narrowcasted it, which is nothing new for Rapsody. On The Breakfast Club radio show, she called out an emblematic Twitter exchange where a male fan suggested that another man check out her album; the man responded, "What she look like?" Rapsody is hyper-aware that she doesn't fit cis-het men's "sexy" hip-hop stereotypes and that that she's often marginalized as prescriptively "woke." She knows there are those who think she's an elitist emcee who only raps for other rappers, and others who see her as woman who only raps for other women, or as a cultural gatekeeper who can't lighten up.

But on Laila's Wisdom, instead of squirming against these distortions, she goes deep within, writing virtually every song as if she's telling her life story up to the moment of recording. For most, that could mean a hot, overstuffed mess. But with ingenious concision and stylistic range, Rapsody creates an album that could be described favorably, per Billboard, as "tackling war, drug abuse, mass incarceration, gender dynamics, and police violence," but feels like a warm, bantering Saturday-morning convo over coffee with a family member, roommate, friend, or partner.

For example, some might tag "Sassy" as the sort of fun, party track that's not Rapsody's lane. The bewitching detail is there, the heartfelt confessions, the arch wordplay, the hoops and sneaker humble-brags, the simmering pissed-offness, the regrets. But none of it pokes out of the songs obtrusively. It's all seamlessly interwoven, strikingly vivid and affecting, like Faith Ringgold's "French Collection" story quilts and their complex depictions of black women's yearning and struggle.

"It depends on what your idea of fun is, I guess," says mentor-producer and Jamla Records founder Patrick "9th Wonder" Douthit, a 2015 Grammy nominee himself. "Yeah, we not in the strip club, but she's made fun records before."

True, but in "Sassy," the rapper also breezily reminisces about friends here and gone, tomboy truths, smalltown beef (nodding to her tiny, rural eastern North Carolina birthplace of Snow Hill), her departure for N.C. State like "a young Denise [Huxtable from The Cosby Show]," and on to the hard-won respect she now owns from lyrical hero Jay-Z and A-list collaborators Lamar and Anderson .Paak. "Visionary, won't never scared," goes her unhurried idiom.

Rapsody's connection to her roots is about more than staying grounded, just like the video's references to historically black colleges and mid-nineties Atlanta, an era viewed as the "Black Mecca" of African American cultural capital, aren't just about nostalgia. For Rapsody, making these connections is about survival. Some have tagged her music as retro for looking back to other eras of hip-hop, unlike, say, the teen-streaming trap-rap universe of Atlanta today—but she listens to trap, too ("I was just making it clap to Waka Flocka [Flame] last week" goes a verse in Laila's "Nobody"). For her, any future, especially for African Americans, means linking past and present, young and old. "If we separate hip-hop... it hurts the culture," she told Billboard in a pre-Grammys interview. "If you take it back to South Africa and apartheid, and how they came in and separated these people based on their languages—you can't do it by skin color because they're black, so you separate their language."

On the "Sassy" chorus, she calmly asserts her poetic swag: "Diamonds 'tween my knees/Oil wells in my thighs/Does my sassiness upset you?/Oh, you mad 'cause I survived," drawing a line to the defiant self-respect of Maya Angelou's 1978 poem "Still I Rise." Though asides by rappers about survival aren't typically placed in the larger context of African-American deprivation—failed criminal justice system, racist drug policy, militarized police, voter suppression, we could go on and on—let's take a knee and pause.

Between 1991 and mid-2007, parents held in state and federal prisons increased by seventy-nine percent; African Americans made up almost half that number, despite being only twelve percent of the population. In a staggering 2015 study by national nonprofit Child Trends, it was determined that one in nine black children has had at least one parent serve time in prison. Plainly, black families have been broken apart by government policies for centuries. Hence, Rapsody's sharp focus.

Laila's Wisdom opens as a bittersweet family affair, with the title track's choral invocation paying respects to "Laila," Rapsody's civil rights-era grandmother. Recalling conflicted nods to the African-American church by other rappers (Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, Lamar), but in a less belabored mode, Rapsody begins as if in mid-conversation: "Look, don't worry 'bout anything they told you... Everything's a season and some things you gotta go through/Believe me, I done seen it all, you're young talking to old you."

"Power" follows, a slinky epic featuring Lamar and Lance Skiiwalker, produced with a majestic twinkle by 9th Wonder (sampling Bootsy Collins's Rubber Band, plus a drum break from a Christine McVie solo album). She references positive and negative sources of power: guns, drugs, booty, God, childbirth, but not before giggling and cooing the line with the line "Ooo, I ain't never read the 48 Laws," Robert Greene's devilishly banal self-help tome. "Chrome (Like Ooh)," with its summery, thumb piano-buzzing beat, chats playfully and spits gravely on male street violence ("Boys always taught don't cry, but need to cry"). "Black & Ugly" is steely and soulful, processing her self-image issues, complicated by Graves' disease, an autoimmune thyroid disorder that Missy Elliott also contracted. "Took all my demons, threw 'em downhill in a buggy/Then stood on top the hill and did the Milly Rock and Dougie/Screamin' only God can judge me."

This is the closest Laila's Wisdom comes to a singular cry of triumph, a moment of sonic and lyrical arrival where Rapsody metaphorically busts through the door, announcing that she's now the star. She acts like she's been here.

So, what if Lamar and Jay-Z split the votes of Grammy traditionalists and Rapsody edges them out? Is such a scenario that unlikely? It could happen, right? It's been almost twenty years since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill beat Madonna's Ray of Light. You don't have to be a homer to hope for another upset, especially when you hear how Ms. Hill and her Miseducation inspired a fifteen-year-old Rapsody—by Hill getting over as girlish and tomboyish; by rapping from multiple points of view (on "Lost Ones"); by seriously humbling Jay-Z, the archetypal sexist rap bro, as he's admitted in his book, Decoded; and by simply being the best rapper in a group with two guys (the Fugees), as Rapsody later would be in Kooley High.

A win for Rapsody could be a similar, if smaller-scale, inspiration to a whole new generation of kids. I can see her now, quoting her elegantly blunt "Nobody": "Look ... this is some marvelous shit!"

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