For most of her career, North Carolina rapper Rapsody has been in quarantine. Neither individual virtuosity, nor cosigns from Jay-Z, Black Thought, and Kendrick Lamar, have ever brought her the reverence awarded to other avowed lyricists of her ilk. Signed to Roc Nation and 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records, Rapsody is not an underground legend or a best kept secret. She’s invisible.
That sidelining and her yearning to overcome it without hypersexualizing herself or abandoning her style have been a focal point of her music for years (often at the expense of personality), but on 2017’s Grammy-nominated Laila’s Wisdom her determination finally became her own. “I spent way too much time trying to fit in,” she rapped on the album’s last track. Making up for those years of fruitlessly wrestling with expectations, the Rapsody of Eve is renewed and at ease. Her flows are dexterous yet easygoing. Her songwriting is breezy and expressive. No longer obsessed with proving her worth, she finds her voice. It resonates.
Inspired by generations of trailblazing black women-living, fictional and dead–the record uses these figures to ground Rapsody’s outsider perspective. They are conduits for Rapsody’s ideas of self and community rather than muses. On “Aaliyah,” the late R&B singer’s tomboy style and multi-part harmonies accent Rapsody’s newfound confidence. “I don’t care what you got to say about me no more/Double dutchin’ when I’m tuckin’ and my back on the ropes,” she declares. On “Hatshepsut,” which features a god-level Queen Latifah verse, the song’s titular Egyptian pharaoh represents black women’s potential greatness. As Rapsody and Queen Latifah see it, queendom is defined by action rather than inheritance; anyone can become royal.
These allusions to black women are as cheeky as they are reverent. “Ibtihaj” invokes the Muslim fencer as a sly nod to the Willie Mitchell loop famously used on the title track of GZA’s Liquid Swords. When GZA himself appears on the track, which is groovier than RZA’s original flip, it further demonstrates how much Rapsody has evolved beyond pastiche. She’s not dryly invoking history; she’s playing with it, inserting herself into it. The reference to the former First Lady on “Michelle” is a fun misdirection. Rather than dwelling on politics or symbolism, Rapsody and Elle Varner spend the song celebrating girls’ night out, shaking their asses and shutting down the party. While there’s hints of Michelle Obama’s pride and congeniality, it’s really an ode to black sisterhood.
Throughout Eve, Rapsody speaks frankly of the burdens black women bear, citing infighting that perpetuates sexism (“Cleo”) as well as the psychic costs of the violence that black men endure (“Myrlie”) and commit (“Afeni”). These are not new themes for her, but here they resonate more fully. As she taps into the specific struggles and tribulations borne by her idols, she sees her own battles with visibility and self-assurance more clearly. Black girls are magic, but they are also people.
That sense of cross-generational recognition is heightened by the LP’s fluid production, which is more breathable than the deft but often stuffy boom bap and throwback neo-soul of much of her catalog. The beats on Eve are open-ended and bouncy, brimming with live instrumentation and gusts of color. Provided by her mentor 9th Wonder as well as Khrysis, Nottz, Eric G, and Mark Byrd, this template pushes Rapsody toward looser flows and deliveries with more swagger and verve. It’s not a reinvention—Laila’s Wisdom featured the exact same producer lineup—but a refinement. As Rapsody channels the spirits of her forebears without sacrificing her individuality, the producers, too, balance nostalgia with personality.
At a time when women in hip-hop are stepping to fore more than ever, it’s easy to attribute Rapsody’s evolution to some collective come-up. Rapsody herself might even encourage that reading just to make her many sacrifices worthwhile. But Eve is more than a sign of the times. Easily one of the best rap records of the year, it’s the sound of a skilled artist becoming a vital one, and asserting her place not only in the genre but in the world.