In music and the culture it reflects, 2017 was predictably unpredictable: idols fell, empires shook, consensus was scarce. All this week, NPR Music is talking with artists, makers and thinkers whose work captured something unique about a chaotic year, and hinted at bigger revelations around the bend.
On the morning I call Rapsody, two weeks before her album Laila's Wisdom is to be nominated for a best rap album Grammy, she's still in bed after a late night putting in work at the recording studio in Raleigh, N.C. "I usually get a little tea and honey to start my day," she says. It doesn't strike me as the makings of a typical power breakfast. Then again, Rapsody has become quite adept at challenging how power is perceived in 2017.
With Laila's Wisdom — her sophomore album and first since partnering with Jay-Z's Roc Nation, named for a grandmother who insisted on getting her flowers while she was alive to smell them — Rapsody conveys a dimensionality that's rare in a genre where flat characters abound. She rhymes tough but tender, philosophical and flirtatious, vulnerable yet aggressive, both in and out of love, while remaining lyrical at every turn. "Power," the lead single featuring Kendrick Lamar, is propelled by a grinding bass line, over which Rapsody deconstructs the conceit of power from a feminine perspective: "The power of the dussy make a grown man cry / The day I came up out my momma I saw a grown man cry."
It's a fitting metaphor for a year in which women have made considerable headway in hip-hop, even as abuses of authority by powerful men in entertainment are exposed almost daily. The music industry gender gap remains wide, and the litmus test for signing, marketing and promoting female rappers still often bends to a scale of desirability — or lumps them in a category unto themselves, away from the center of the culture. Three days after the release of Laila's Wisdom, Cardi B's powerhouse anthem "Bodak Yellow" hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100; online, fans expressed fear that Cardi's outsize success might overshadow Rapsody's long-awaited breakthrough. Rapsody herself, however, wasn't worried: "You had Cardi reaching No. 1 — that was a moment that should be celebrated. I also have this album that's critically acclaimed and people love it. We can celebrate these two together at the same time, for totally different reasons," she says. "It happens with men all the time."
During our conversation, Rapsody is effusive about the men who have stood in her corner. She was the only woman in the hip-hop collective Kooley High when acclaimed producer and fellow North Carolina native 9th Wonder deemed her worthy of solo success. Today she's the flagship artist of his Jamla record label, where she counts director of operations (and Jay-Z's long-time engineer) Young Guru among her mentors. Kendrick Lamar featured her on his own landmark album, To Pimp a Butterfly. And, she says, men are the majority of her fanbase by a longshot. In an industry full of paradoxes around gendered performance — including the persistent fallacy that there's only room for one woman at a time in rap's stratosphere — what's most striking about Rapsody's contribution to hip-hop this year is her determination to coexist without compromise.
Rodney Carmichael: How did you feel about the discussion around you and Cardi B? Some of your fans seemed genuinely worried that her No. 1 would take the spotlight off you.
Rapsody: I saw the comments. I get the genuineness of where it comes from. But I also saw comments like, "This is a dope year for women because we have Rapsody dropping this album, Cardi is hitting No. 1, Remy is having a great year and Nicki is still here doing her thing. They all add to the culture in their way." I think it was more disdain for the media, really, because the media may tend to focus on one story.
It does feel like the music media, even when we intend to celebrate women in hip-hop, can often exclude them from the bigger conversation by only comparing them to each other. When I think of your peers in rap, I think of Kendrick, I think of Cole, I think of Big K.R.I.T. — artists who bring a certain level of humility to their artistry.
When people would ask me about the term female MC, I always told them I don't like the term because I know how it boxes us in. [Then] I went to a Black Girls Rock event: It was myself, Lauryn Hill, MC Lyte, Jean Grae. In that moment, I was like, "I don't mind being called a female rapper, because I understand what it is in this space" — the same way that, when you see someone black win an Oscar, we gotta celebrate because we're underrepresented in that.
But when it comes to being an artist across the board, I like to compete with the best, and I don't like to tie that to my gender. That's how I've always approached music. I want to compare myself and compete, in a healthy way, with the best of the best. It just so happens that the best of the best, as far as my peers for now, happen to be men: They are your Kendricks and your Coles and your K.R.I.T.s. I even go back to legends — I want to see how my album stands up compared to your Reasonable Doubts and your Black Albums and your The Scores and your Miseducations. To me, it all just becomes about the music.
I want to ask about your relationship with 9th Wonder, who first heard you in the group Kooley High. I've heard he identified you pretty quickly as the one with the most potential.
We started out as a big hip-hop organization. By the time 9th heard us, we had [a few songs] and he said, "Y'all should just be a group. There aren't a lot of groups, especially groups with a woman in them, since the Fugees." I came up with the name Kooley High and we ran with it. But at the time he told them, "This is your one; this is your star." I had only just started recording songs like two or three months [earlier], so he saw my potential way before I could see it in myself, though I always knew that I wanted to do it. He believed in me before everybody else.
You grew up in a town in North Carolina called Snow Hill — population 1,500. How did rap come to you?
For a long time I was the youngest girl in the family. I have three older sisters — one is four years older than me, one is seven years older than me and one is eleven years older than me — and they listened to a lot of R&B growing up. It was my guy cousins that really turned me on to hip-hop in a different way: when you're at the family functions and all the teenagers are off in their section of the yard with the car windows down, doors open, pumping hip-hop. I came from a big family and we're all tight, but my cousins, we're tight to the point where we're more like brothers and sisters. ... They're playing Illmatic or they're playing some Tribe, [and] I'm hearing these records for the first time in their car, because I wasn't allowed to buy this music and my sisters were way more into the R&B side.
How early did you begin identifying with those artists in a way that you could envision yourself doing the same thing?
It was MC Lyte's "Poor Georgie" video. That came out in maybe '91 or '92? I used to watch videos a lot — that was a thing me and my dad did. We'd watch Video Soul together, or Yo! MTV Raps; we'd record the countdowns on VHS and I'd put the tape in and we'd watch music videos all day. She was the first woman I saw do it — and she was bustin', so that's when I had the vision that I could do that.
The Remy Ma / Nicki Minaj beef comes to mind when I think about the rise of women in hip-hop this year. Battle rap has played an important role in the culture historically, but it seems like the industry also has a tendency to pit women against each other nowadays.
When I was growing up and listening to women in hip-hop, I didn't think there could only be one. You had Queen [Latifah], Lauryn, Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Monie Love, Charli Baltimore, Missy Elliott: They all coexisted together. Kim and Foxy [Brown] had their beef, but I think that was just a genuine beef. That's a part of hip-hop; it wasn't manufactured.
You look at TV [today] and everybody's into reality shows. What's selling reality shows? Confrontation. If confrontation is selling, here's the music business: Let's manufacture some beef and sell that. You see these tweets like, "Yo, Rapsody's dope. When you gonna battle Nicki Minaj?" I'm thinking, why do I have to battle somebody just because they're a woman? You have all these guys coexisting, but because I'm a woman I've gotta be on my Love & Hip Hop confrontational thing and go after another woman just to entertain you? That's the silliest concept to me, ever. That's silly. If Nicki and Remy have beef and it's genuine, then it is what it is. But don't go beefing after someone for entertainment; it's just gimmick at that point.
We're in the midst of this growing awareness around consent and the abuse of power this year, as more and more allegations of harassment and sexual assault by men emerge. Do you think there's anything hip-hop has to gain, culturally, from this conversation?
If we're talking about hip-hop, or even outside of hip-hop, when it comes to black men and black women, I've heard the argument ... that black men aren't supportive of them, or about rape culture. There's definitely some truth in it. There's also another side that I see. I was on The Breakfast Club with DJ Envy, and we talked about a line I have [on "Chrome (Like Ooh)"] about how men are taught not to cry, but need to cry. Maybe that's what leads to this culture of having all these emotions and frustrations: You're holding it in and have no way to get it out. And you hit your woman or do something crazy.
On my end, especially when it comes to misogyny in hip-hop, you hear that men are always sexualizing women, that men don't support women unless they're naked. It's crazy when I hear this argument, because it's a false narrative when it comes to me. My biggest supporters have been men. When I look at the analytics, my fanbase is 77 percent men. I'm fully clothed and I have a hard time getting women to listen. When Lauryn Hill came out, it was men that were on Lauryn first during the Fugees; women didn't really come around till Miseducation.
That's probably been the biggest thing for me — not making it all so one-sided. I can only use myself as an example, because that's what I live. But I think about who cosigned me, who pushed me: 9th Wonder did. Young Guru did. Kendrick Lamar put me on a bigger platform with To Pimp a Butterfly. Dr. Dre cosigned me. Jay-Z signed me. Rape culture exists and misogyny exists, but we can't make that an all-encompassing black man problem, because it's not. At the end of the day, we all have to listen and communicate with each other, because it's gonna take all of us, men and women, to make it better.
To me, it's rare for an artist to express the full range of humanity that you do on Laila's Wisdom. Does your relationship with Jamla and 9th Wonder play a role in that?
Yeah, definitely. 9th established an environment where we're just gonna make dope music. No matter who the artist was, he'd always sit you down and ask you what you want to do and why you want to do it: "Are you in it for the fame or do you want to be an artist that's here in 20 years? Do you want to add to the culture?" Before anything, he's helping you define that, and depending on what your answer is, he's giving you a realistic play of how it's gonna go. If you want to be around in 20 years, understand that it's gonna be a marathon and not a sprint.
The first or second time I met [Young] Guru, he said to me, "Define your line now." That's the line you're not crossing or compromising. Figure that out now so that you already know and have it set in your mind — whether it be the music, how I look, what brands I associate or align myself with. We had these conversations early. You can't protect your artists from everything but you can prepare them for how it's gonna be.
On an artistic level, when those studio doors close, nobody cares what gender you are, what race you are, where you're from. As long as the music is dope — you're telling your story and having fun in the process — that's all that matters when the doors close.
My favorite song on the album changes from day to day — but on "Knock On My Door" I love how you're so subtle and, at the same time, so aggressively flirtatious. Is it hard to walk that line? So many artists tend to get stuck in one zone.
It wasn't hard for me to do at all. It just came natural. ... As women, we can tap into our emotions in a way that men aren't always allowed to. But I can also show you the strength of a woman, talk about something like power, which is multi-dimensional. It's dope to show people that women can go in these different places: We can be hard, we can be gritty, we can talk about pain, we can talk depression. I can talk about love. There's not a human on earth who doesn't feel those emotions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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