The rapper known as Rapsody has been plugging away underground for the better part of a decade. The North Carolina native has released a slew of projects and received praise from major media outlets. Still, her biggest break came earlier this year by way of a feature on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. Her memorable assist on K. Dot's “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” had people everywhere asking: “Who is Rapsody?”
“It's been a beautiful experience,” Rapsody tells Fusion from New York where she's on a week-long press tour. “Everybody has that moment when they get ushered into the game. And even though I've been around for a while, this has been mine.”
What the 27-year-old MC represents is the spirit of artistic revolution — a spirit concerned not just with self preservation but the preservation of an entire value system. As an artist, she's long placed a high premium on substance, holding that as a woman with a platform she has a responsibility to bring balance to our cultural consciousness. And, let's be clear, in a male-dominated sport like hip-hop, she has to work twice as hard and flex twice as nice to be heard. That her ambition has never weaned is what continues to propel Rapsody from one level to the next. She wants to be the best, and you can hear it in every line.
“Don't ever take my gender as a weakness,” she says. “Yes, men and women are made differently, and men might be physically stronger in general. But this is different, this music is a mind thing.”
Without doubt, Rapsody is a purveyor of a true school rap ethos, one that recognizes skill and ingenuity over everything. But fact is, she's much more. And she isn't retro by any stretch. Although she does draw inspiration from the well of hip-hop's golden era, her sound is unequivocally now, and her voice one for our modern times. Yet, she contends, it would do the culture much good to get back to the basics.
“Lyricism these days isn't what it used to be,” she says. “But we're definitely going through a shift. Everything comes back around. That's why I say, 'Funny how the one's selling records are the ones rapping for real / Future sold a hundred, Kendrick sold a hot mill.' It all happens in cycles.”
Rapsody's music is at once the stuff of carefree summer barbecues and the outrage of a poet wading steadily against the current. She illustrates better than most the struggles of the independent artist, giving voice to the harsh realities while yet maneuvering gracefully in an ever-shifting musical climate. Her victories have been about as sweet as they've been hard won. From signing to 9th Wonder's Jamla Records in 2008 to garnering support from the likes of Time magazine and USA Today, it's no secret that she's been one to watch. And, as she tells it, it's always been about having a strong sense of self.
“Growing up, I had Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, MC Lyte, Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown, Lil' Kim. From them, I got to see what being sexy was, and what being intelligent was. I took something from all of these women, and I got to pick and choose what was truly me. I love being a woman. And I love my body, but I know I don't have to flaunt it, either. We have so many images out there, and everyone acts like you're supposed to be perfect all the time. I want to show young girls the other side of it, that they're beautiful just the way they are.”
One of Rapsody's most endearing qualities is that, while she carries a brazen assurance and beams confidence, she's also never shied away from conveying her insecurities on wax. Her burden is that of an artist forever at odds with the music industry and its fickle demands. It's a battle she's been fighting for years. But instead of succumbing to the pressure of fitting a certain mold, she has chosen to build her name slowly through a plain and honest approach. For her, there is simply no other way.
“Hip-hop started as a voice for the people, by the people. For a long time it's provided a kind of solidarity, a way to tell our truth and to bring a message that only the people can decode. In the same way that people used negro spirituals to communicate to each other, that's what we're doing now. And there's nothing doper than seeing turntables at a protest. That's the balance I'm all about.”
Part of Rapsody's appeal, to be sure, is her everywoman persona. Her optimism, her clear sense of altruism; it's not hard to see why she'd be a choice model for young girls, and in particular young black girls, who might see in her something they can aspire to. There's a tenderness about her but also a scrappiness that has paid off throughout her career. Sure, she comes across as the cool, older sister always around to impart wisdom. But she can also rap circles around your friends with expert style and control. Plainly put, she's being what one of her mentors, Erykah Badu, charged her to be: the king of her own chess board.
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR and a contributor to Esquire, VIBE, and The Daily Beast. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove