Like clockwork for the past five years, Rapsody (real name Marlanna Evans) has been putting out multiple mini-album or mix-tape projects a year. But the Raleigh rapper’s latest album has been in the works for more than a year now, and it will be a while yet before it emerges.
There’s a good reason for all the deliberation: Rapsody is up for a Grammy Award for her work on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” rapper Kendrick Lamar’s much-ballyhooed 2015 album. “Butterfly” is nominated in seven categories, including the prestigious album of the year – a nomination Rapsody and producer/engineer 9th Wonder (Patrick Douthit) are also part of.
Now that she has the spotlight, the pressure is on for Rapsody to make the most of it with her next full-length album.
“This is the longest I’ve ever spent on a project,” she says. “I’m glad I took the time, even though I sometimes feel like I’m taking too long. But everybody tells me, ‘Nah, you’ve got the world’s attention right now. So take your time.’ ”
Meantime, Rapsody will be at Los Angeles’ Staples Center for Monday’s ceremonies, hoping that this moment will get even better.
“It’s my first time and I’m really excited, even though it’s hard to put that feeling into words,” she said. “It’s just exciting to think about where I started, and now to be recognized at the Grammys – which is the top of the top as far as musical accolades go. So I got my outfit about three weeks ago, went up to New York and got it tailor-made. You know, if we’re gonna go, we’re gonna go.”
Creating her hip-hop world
Rapsody is originally from Snow Hill, a small town of 1,500 about 75 miles east of Raleigh. A hip-hop fan from a young age, she grew up hearing her older sisters’ stories about hip-hop concerts, parties and culture in Raleigh, where they went to N.C. State University. So Rapsody followed them to State – only to discover that Raleigh’s R&B clubs had closed and the scene was in a fallow period by the early 2000s.
“The worst was when they had a country band playing homecoming,” she says. “That was disappointing. But I got around the right group of people and we started organizing more hip-hop things around campus.”
Eventually, Rapsody got on the mike and began performing herself. She joined the group Kooley High, which brought her into the orbit of 9th Wonder, DJ/producer for local hip-hop stars Little Brother.
“I listened to all of them, checked them all out,” Wonder remembers. “And I told them, ‘There’s your star. She’s the one who’s gonna be big.’ She was still a little rough around the edges, but there was definitely potential.”
You can hear Rapsody’s potential as well as her consciousness in songs like “The Man” (from her 2014 mini-album “Beauty and the Beast”), a detailed meditation about the plight of young black men forced to grow up too fast in fatherless homes. Part of that song’s inspiration came from North Carolina Central University basketball coach LeVelle Moton’s 2015 memoir “The Worst Times Are the Best Times.”
“I read an excerpt where he talked about growing up without a dad, and it was really moving,” Rapsody says. “And on Facebook one day, a friend from Snow Hill posted about how he had to become the man of the house and lose his childhood early to take care of his brothers and sisters. Wow, I thought, that’s a story that’s not told enough. So … I told it.”
An exclamation point
It was through Wonder that Rapsody met Lamar when he was passing through North Carolina while on tour and came by Wonder’s studio. They kept in touch; and when he came to work on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar had a song called “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” that was in need of an exclamation point.
“Complexion” is about how fraught skin tone can be for young African-Americans when it comes to self-esteem. Lamar enlisted Rapsody to do a closing-verse cameo, which she wrote on deadline in a Washington, D.C., hotel room while on tour. She knocked it out quickly after rolling in from an all-nighter in Toronto.
“I just had to tell myself, ‘Don’t overthink it,’ ” she says. “ ‘Kendrick called on you because he wants you to do you, so just do it.’ I’d been up all night, so I ate, took a nap, got up and started piecing it together. I’d write about 10 minutes, get to a little block. There was a Duke game on and I’m a big fan, so I’d watch that until something else popped into my head. Took maybe an hour. Went into the studio that night, just like that.”
As recorded by Wonder (which earned him his engineering credit and Grammy nomination for “Butterfly”), Rapsody’s verse riffs on Spike Lee, 2Pac, “12 Years a Slave,” “Star Wars” and a half-dozen other wide-ranging pop-culture references:
Twelve years of age, thinkin’ my shade too dark
I love myself, I no longer need Cupid
And forcing my dark side like a young George Lucas…
Rapsody’s verse closes out “Complexion” on the perfect note – which is fairly amazing given that all she had to work with was the song’s basic beat and Lamar’s description of its other verses.
“We touch on a lot of the same subjects, and I think it’s because we have the same energy being black Americans in America,” she says. “That gave us similar ideas about dealing with everything around complexion in the black community. It just shows that we all experience it in the same way.”
Want to watch?
The Grammy Awards air at 8 p.m. Monday on CBS.