A Long Conversation With Rapsody About Writing Raps
“I love talking about lyrics,” says Rapsody. “I don’t get to talk about it enough.” The North Carolina rapper is sitting in a spacious lounge at Roc Nation’s office, staring up at a giant screen projecting the lyrics to her latest album, Eve.
The 16-track album is packed with historical references (Betty Shabazz, Sojourner Truth), dexterous wordplay (“emit light, rap, or Emmett Till”, she sings in the album’s opening line) and wide-ranging literary allusions to writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Nikki Giovanni.
“That’s my favorite part, the writing,” she says.
Eve is Rapsody’s first release since her Grammy nominated, Kendrick Lamar-featuring breakthrough (and Roc Nation debut) Laila’s Wisdom arrived in 2017. Her latest work is a dense concept album centered around black womanhood, with each track (“Tyra,” “Serena,” “Whoopi”) named after a woman who inspired Rapsody and represented an element of her identity or artistry. (A few weeks after the interview, Rapsody would express her disappointment when Eve was shut out entirely of this year’s Grammy nominations. “Frustrated…beyond,” she wrote on Instagram. “I haven’t been nominated for much, but what I have, I’m thankful for”).
The album, which features understated contributions from D’Angelo, J. Cole and GZA, is a sui generis statement that documents an artist reveling in the process of discovering the historical, cultural and familial lineages that helped shape her.
“I grew up on the fabric of telling stories and not making everything so plain,” Rapsody, 36, tells Rolling Stone during an hour-long conversation about her songwriting and evolution as a rapper. “Having two lines that you can talk about for an hour, the concept of having a metaphor where two lines create this whole dialogue: that’s always the fun part of what I love about hip-hop and lyricism.”
Where does the songwriting process usually begin?
It totally depends on the song. With this one, it’s a concept album, so it’s easier. I would start with the woman: Who do I want to write about today? And what would dictate who I would write about would be the beat. I would get a beat and be like, “What does this sound like?” For one song that didn’t make the album, Sounwave sent me a beat. I had hit him up, saying, “I need a song that I could call Assata,” because I want to write about Assata Shakur. So I said, “I need some militant, Black Panther revolutionary type vibe.” That’s how I would approach it. I would be like, “Eric G, I need something funky. I need something emotional, or soulful.” And they would send me beats and it would make me feel a certain way.
Is that how the opening track “Nina” started?
Mark Byrd sent me the record, and it already sampled Nina [Simone], so that was easy. When I thought about Nina, I thought, “What does she represent for me?” A quote that always sticks out is, “It’s an artist’s duty to tell the truth and speak the times.” That’s something I’ve always tried to do in my career. And we’re both from North Carolina, so for that song I just wanted to talk about me, because I felt like at the core of who I was was something that represented who Nina Simone was at her core: Talking about the times. Speaking up and giving a voice. Being a griot for whatever is going on at the time.
The concept for Eve came to you during an interview with the magazine Oxford American?
Completely. At the time I did that interview, I was just doing songs. We had a title for the album, Alien. It was something 9th Wonder had presented to me, and I was like, “I can kind of dig that. “You’re an alien in that you’re female but you’re as lyrical as you are.” It’s something a generation hasn’t seen in a long time. But I didn’t know where I wanted to go with it. But then I did that interview, and we spent the whole day together, and the writer was talking about connecting me to Nina Simone. I had never really thought about that. I was just taking in what he was saying, but then when I went home, I started writing and recording, and the first song was “Aaliyah.” It was a concept I had been thinking about doing for five years, with me being a tomboy and growing up in a time where in the mainstream you have to look a certain way. I didn’t fit into that mold of what a female looks like.
When that song got finished I was like, “What am I going to call it? I’m just going to call it ‘Aaliyah.’” After I did that, I thought, “Wait a minute. I should do all songs like that.” Because I talk about how much I’m influenced by MC’s: Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill, but there’s another side of me, where I’m a huge fan of Cecily Tyson, and Phylicia Rashad. I would sit and watch their movies, the power that they possess, and how they carry themselves. That’s how I want to model myself as an artist. I want to be classy like that. I want to be intelligent. I want to be regal. But at the same time, hip and raw. I grew up reading a lot: Nikki Giovanni poetry books, Maya Angelou, but at the same time, I like to get down. I listen to Go-Go and I will probably get in the mirror and shake my butt. I know I shelter myself a lot. I don’t give a lot of people a lot about who I am. They know me to be lyrical and intelligent, but there’s a goofy side to me. I’m goofy as hell. There’s a fun side of me, and there’s a side where it’s like, “You rap and you’re so cool and chill,” but if you push me the wrong way, that comes out. So it was just like, I should give more of myself, and I can do that in a creative way. And this was my way of doing it: connecting all these different sides of me to other women.
It sounds like a time when you were really processing and reflecting on your own identity: where you came from, how you conceived of different parts of yourself.
You learn so much as you grow in this life and get older, when you tap into the question of, “Who the fuck am I?” And then you become comfortable with it, because there was a time where I don’t think I really was, especially coming into this music industry, where I didn’t really know who I was. Or, I knew who I was, and I felt like I had to change and alter that to fit into music. With the last album [2017’s Laila’s Wisdom], it validated for me that I don’t have to change. So for this one, I fully accepted it and embraced who I was. I got back to who that person was before I even tried to enter the music business. What do I like to do? Do it all. Show it all. You don’t have to be put in this box of, “I gotta be this for the culture” or, “I gotta be this to fit into the music business.” Just do what feels right. You look back at your mothers and aunts and you’re like, “They are a certain way and have this life.” And then you learn about family secrets and you’ll be like, “Yo, that’s another side of you I didn’t know. And you were going through this that whole time, and the way you hid that, and the power that possessed?” It grew me in a whole different way.
That impulse to interrogate your lineage and family history feels very Southern.
I definitely think that plays a part in it, being from the South. You see it out in the world, but the fabric here is just different. My grandfather, we were close. He was a sharecropper, and to hear him tell stories of, “I used to work in a field and we would have people from the North that would come down for work.” He was talking about this one guy who came and he allowed him to stay in his house, and he told me that the guy was trying to court a white woman, and my grandfather was like, “I tried to explain to him that you can’t do that. We had to get him and put him on a train and send him back North.” To know that your grandfather who was 90-something years old experienced that, it wasn’t that long ago. You never forget that history. Even today, I got called a nigger probably four years ago. So now it’s 2019, and with Black Lives Matter and what’s going on with cops, and I have nieces and nephews. So I look at it as my duty: I’ve got to educate you and tell you how to survive in this world. But I never want to be too jaded and bitter.
The moment you realize this record is going to be really heavy comes with its very first line: “Emit light, rap, or Emmett Till.”
I wrote that verse at least 12 times. We had a conversation in the studio with 9th Wonder, and we were talking about Mobb Deep and what made them special is that their first lines were always crazy. That always stuck with me. It’s the first line of the first song, it’s gotta be killer. I can’t remember what, but something inspired the idea of, “Shine light on something.” So I was like, “Alright, how can that sail where it won’t be corny?” So I’m just like, “Emit light, rap.” I love double entendres, they’re my thing. E-mit Till…
It’s just sharing these two ideas, where, “emit light…” It’s up to you to give people light, to inspire you, to educate. I want you to know the core of who I am from the first line. That’s why “Nina” had to be first. I am from North Carolina. I am soulful. I do talk about the times. I am lyrical. Everything that I felt like Nina Simone represented, I wanted to carry that legacy on, so that’s why the first line in the first verse had to be so powerful. I have to introduce you to me first, the core of me, before I go experiment, show you my growth. So it’s, “Emit light, rap.” I’m in this business because I have a purpose. “Or Emmett Till.” You can talk about our duty to have a purpose and inspire people, and if we don’t, the consequences of that. It’s also who you’re speaking for, like, “Don’t forget the Emmett Till’s of the world.”
Earlier, you mentioned a song that didn’t make the album. Were there lots of those?
I did 40 songs. Some of them are full songs, some of them are half songs, some of them are ideas, but 40 songs, 40 women. Our first cut of the record had 23 songs. I was like, “I could live with this, I’m happy, but man, nobody can digest that.”
The album’s concept feels extremely fleshed out. You rap about so many different historic black women who don’t even have songs named after them.
That was another way of creating, of making sure I included more women. But I didn’t want to force it. I didn’t go in thinking like, “I gotta make sure I shout out Lauryn. I gotta make sure I shout out Maxine Waters.” But in telling these stories, you bring the village with you. There’s just a central concept of how we’re all connected. I wouldn’t have known who Nina Simone is without Lauryn Hill. So I thought, “How can I keep these women’s legacies and names going? Who is Fljo? Who do people love Lauryn so much? Who is Phylicia Rashad? Who is Assata Shakur? Who are these women? Who is Nikki Giovanni?” When I did that line, I was like, “Somebody’s going to think I’m talking about Nicki Minaj.’ [Laughs]. It was all just a way for me to show homage, but also educate.
It must feel validating to witness fans connecting with such an intimate, intricate concept record.
Making a record, sometimes you overthink it. I remember in the past where we might have team meetings, where people might say, you know, “It’s hard for you to break through because there’s a sector of people who listen to hip-hop because they want to live a fantasy. They can’t connect with you talking about black women.” So for this to resonate with people you think it would resonate with and with people you worried it wouldn’t resonate with… “Will they get it? Will they even want to hear this? Will they automatically be turned off because, oh, this is an album for black women.” And you figure out that no, that’s not the case. That’s fulfilling and validating.
One of the album’s most powerful lines is also one that makes me laugh: “Hands bury the man and they raised the son, Lorraine/That’s a play on words.” This comes halfway through the record (on “Ibtihaj”), after approximately 400 other play on words.
That’s one of my favorite bars. That’s probably one that a lot of people don’t really get. Hands buried the man/and they raised the son, Lorraine. I just love when I catch things like that. We’re talking about how we can physically bury people with our hands, as strong black women. You think about Trayvon Martin’s mom. She had to bury her son, but also with her hands, she raised her son. I connected that with Lorraine Hansberry and A Raisin in the Sun. It’s about strong black women and their relationship with black men, and black men needing to feel like they’re providers, that they’re strong, in this hard world they have to live in. So, this is my play on words, but it’s also an actual play. Being able to do that with words, to me, is so much fun. I’m able to say so and relay so much, so many messages and concepts and ideas that create conversation and thought in just two bars.
Even the line “that’s a play on words” is…
…Is a play on words. It’s actually a play. That’s the fun part.
How did that song, ‘“Ibtihaj,” start?
I didn’t have a title, or a woman to connect it with. This was the only song I didn’t come up with the concept for. It was pretty much all 9th. He was like, “Let’s name if after the Muslim-American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.” She’s a newer black woman. I had a lot of legends on the album, so I was rocking with that idea. I tried to tie it into her being confident and never changing who she is and just flexing her skill.
Now, D’Angelo getting on the song? That was, god… To this day I look back and I’m like, “How in the hell did we get D’Angelo?” I started writing down a list of features that I wanted in 2009, and D’Angelo had been on my list ever since. We had picked “Liquid Swords” [to sample] so out of respect, because that’s GZA’s biggest song, we hit GZA to make sure it’s cool. He was like, “Yeah, you got my blessing, and I’m also going to give you a verse.” We were in the studio mixing, and the call came from GZA’s manager, scheduling how we were going to get his verse. When 9th got off the phone he was like, “You ain’t never going to believe this. [GZA’s manager] said that he also manages D’Angelo, and D’Angelo is a fan of yours and mine, and he thinks it would be dope if we worked together. To have all these things line up, you gotta believe in divine intervention and destiny. D’Angelo? Out of the blue?
I’m drawn in by the way you invoke history and violence in “Myrlie”: “Wade in the water/I don’t mean baptized.”
It’s the time that we in. I was thinking of women like Coretta [Scott King] and Betty [Shabazz]. We know Medgar Evars, but nobody ever talks about Myrlie Evers. In making a project about black women, we know the stories of our Martin’s and Malcolm’s, but everybody doesn’t really delve into their wives, into what’s left behind and how strong these women women have to be to watch their husband’s get murdered, to give their life to make change only to watch them killed. All of them, at the end of the day, have children that they leave behind. I don’t even know how to sum up, or tap into, what that feels like, and I’m a black woman. To think about Laura London. That was something that I really wanted to talk about. When Eric G made the beat, I was like, “This is perfect, because it’s angry, but it’s also emotional. But also urgent.” It’s just dark, like, we wading in the water, only god puts you through that. Or you wading in the water, so many emotional tears, you almost drowned.
A lot of the songs on this album have a similar structure where the first verse is introducing a specific theme and setting a scene, and the second verse is plunging deeper into the ideas and complications of that theme. Do you think about songwriting in that way?
It depends. There are some songs where, conceptually, I have a whole idea: “I know this verse is going to be this, this verse is going to be that.” For example, on “Iman,” I knew I wanted to write about the beauty of black women. But then there are others, say “Maya,” where that is inspired by the poem she wrote, “Caged Bird.” What was Maya [Angelou] saying in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?” That’s just a little piece of it, but you’re making it so much broader. And then sometimes I walk in and I don’t know what I’m going to write and it just subconsciously comes out. That’s where the first line becomes so important, because that first line is going to lead you.
This type of album really shows the limits of Genius annotations. Someone thought one of the “caged bird” mentions in “Maya” was a reference to the J. Cole song.
[Laughs] That’s too much. I made a playlist for “Maya,” and one of the first songs I put on it was the J. Cole song “Caged Bird.” What I do like, though, is sometimes when people tweet me lyrics and they’ll have a meaning to it, an interpretation, and I’ll be like, “That’s dope. That works, even though that wasn’t what I meant. You made it a quadruple entendre!’”
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