In the wake of Rapsody’s two Grammy nominations last fall – including one for Best Rap Album of the year – the North Carolina native heard from just about everyone she knew.
But there was one congratulatory note that stuck out – from the head of her record label. That happens to be Jay-Z, the legendary rapper, entrepreneur and this year’s leading Grammy nominee himself.
“Jay-Z forwarded the first email he’d ever sent me with a note,” said Rapsody, 32. “ ‘From this email to a Grammy nomination, congratulations. This is what it’s all about.’ Yeah, he was excited, too.”
These Grammy nominations are for the Raleigh resident’s acclaimed major-label debut, “Laila’s Wisdom,” which has been turning heads since its September release on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, in partnership with 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records. And though it has peaked thus far at a modest No. 125 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart, “Laila’s Wisdom” has earned immense respect and acclaim, even before its Grammy nods for Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for “Sassy.”
The Grammys will be presented Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. live from New York on CBS.
Vibe said the album “transports the listeners to matters of the heart as well as the soul.” Hiphopdx gave “Laila’s Wisdom” four-and-a-half stars out of five, praising the album for presenting “self-love without a shred of arrogance.” And it’s been pretty much nothing but love all over Twitter, too.
Rapsody’s current Grammy nominations actually aren’t her first. Last year, she was a part of Kendrick Lamar’s Album of the Year nomination for 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” only to lose out to Taylor Swift.
But the fact that these nominations are for Rapsody’s own album feels like vindication.
“That it’s my own body of work just makes it that much more enjoyable and special this time,” she said. “The love has been overwhelming. I’ve worked so hard for seven years now to reach this point, and it feels like a defining moment. I’m already kind of ready to go back in and make another one! So you stop a minute, live in the moment – but don’t live in it too long, either.”
Born Marlanna Evans, Rapsody grew up in Snow Hill, a town of 1,500 about 70 miles east of Raleigh. She came to the Triangle to attend N.C. State. After joining the hip-hop group Kooley High while still a student, she caught the eye of Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit, the Grammy-winning producer/deejay for Destiny’s Child, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and others.
“There’s your star. She’s the one who’s gonna be big,” Wonder recalls telling Kooley High’s other members about Rapsody’s potential. Wonder signed her as a solo act to his Jamla label and then partnered last year with Roc Nation – where Rapsody became that label’s first female MC.
Rapsody didn’t just have potential but also a relentless work ethic. While “Laila’s Wisdom” is her first release with a major label distribution, she has independently released more than a half-dozen albums, mini-albums and mixtapes since 2010.
Given how prolific she is, lack of material was not a problem for “Laila’s Wisdom.”
“My mind is always working, it never turns off,” she said. “I’m always writing in my head in some fashion. So I write in my phone a lot, even though I miss writing on paper. But it’s so easy when I’m out or watching a movie, having a conversation. An idea pops into my head, I grab the phone and type in some bars or a concept, or use the vocal memo to record a cadence or flow.”
With Wonder serving as primary producer, “Laila’s Wisdom” has an impressive cameo guest list, including Lamar, Anderson.Paak, Terrace Martin and Tariq Luqmaan “Black Thought” Trotter. But the album’s most attention-getting star turn is by Busta Rhymes. The venerable MC appears at the end of “You Should Know” to drop enough bump-and-grind ribaldry to turn anyone crimson – starting with Rapsody herself.
“That one did make me blush,” she said with a laugh. “But Busta was true to form and did what Busta does, painted a picture. It would have been easier to put him on a really hype track when he can go Busta, but I wanted something different.”
“I sent him the beat and told him he’d be starting off the ‘love’ section of the album,” she said. “So he turned on the Barry White, and he killed it. I laughed and laughed because he’s one of the most hilarious people. Everybody loves that one. The tweets I get: ‘Busta’s verse, oh my God, that is hot.’ Mission accomplished!”
Fighting to the top
Rapsody is currently on a tour that will bring her back to the Triangle for a Dec. 6 show in Durham that should feel like a victory lap.
But as impressive as her Grammy nominations are, Rapsody faces long odds to win. She’s probably the least-known nominee in each of her categories – both of which include Jay-Z as well as Lamar, either of whom seem like heavy favorites.
Last fall, hours after learning of her nominations, Rapsody said she will be there “without a doubt.”
“My mama’d killed me if I didn’t!” she said. “And I need another fly new outfit, too.”
Still, just making the field is reason enough to celebrate, especially given how hard Rapsody has had to work to break through. It’s hard for women to be taken seriously in the music business – especially in the male-dominated world of hip-hop.
“Whether you’re in music or in Hollywood, you hear stories behind the scenes about things going on,” Rapsody said. “To see all this coming out now is not surprising. Women have more roadblocks in the music business, anyway. You hear things like, ‘It costs more to take care of women because of the hair and makeup.’ The respect level of our talent isn’t great, either. And you have to look a certain way, be a certain size, show your skin, be appealing to the eye.”
“Laila’s Wisdom” addresses this directly on a number of songs, most notably on one called “Black & Ugly.” In a tone of defiance, Rapsody begins the song by declaring:
I remember when y’all used to call me ugly
Isn’t it ironic now you all just wanna love me
So concerned with weight I’m mo’ chunky than I am chubby...
It’s a song that cuts close to the bone for her.
“You know you’re not ‘ugly,’ but to be a woman in hip-hop is to get caught up in this idea of what other people put on a pedestal as ‘beautiful,’ ” she said. “You’ve gotta look a certain way, flat stomach, skin tone, long hair. And it seems like some people like other music that’s not as good, but based on looks. It has an effect, people being so caught up in a man-made push of this fake idea of beautiful.”
At one point, she acknowledges that she was taking that to heart.
“Yeah, I went through a period where it really affected how I looked at things,” she said. “People put the way you look so far at the top and see music before they hear it. I’m not changing the way I look. So how do I break through? Just make dope music, I think.”