It’s the Sunday before the 58th annual Grammy Awards, and Rapsody is beaming with excitement. Not only will the North Carolina-bred M.C. be attending the award ceremony for the first time this year, she also stood a pretty good chance of walking home with a Grammy for her contribution on Kendrick Lamar’s 11-time-nominated masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly.
“It’s hard to put into words how the moment feels,” she said at the time. “I don’t know what to expect, but I’m very excited and honored. It’s the top honors in music, and to be part of it on the best and most important album of the year is fulfilling. I would be lying if I said I didn’t expect Kendrick to take home Album of the Year.”
After Kendrick’s five wins Monday night (alas, not for Album of the Year), Rapsody texted: “Myself and my team are still absorbing it all! Stoked! It feels good to be acknowledged for your talents and hard work at the highest level of music. I walked in the house after the ceremonies to applause and congratulations from my family and friends! It was the best feeling in the world to see them so happy and proud, and to inspire so many other thru this accomplishment! Definitely rewarding.
“I am tho disappointed that Kendrick wasn’t acknowledged for album of the year. I think he really deserved that for the impact, but that category has seldom been good to hip-hop. However, win or lose, he won already because he has forever changed lives, inspired so many, thru the music. And in the end, for lifetimes and lifetimes down the line, we will forever be talking about a good kid from a maad city who grew wings and flew. This album and its message is bigger than any award.”
One listen to this wordsmith’s meditative verse on the evil of colorism on the powerful “Complexion (Zulu Love),” and it’s evident just why K.Dot turned to Rapsody to bless the song. Those familiar with her rap sheet (she has seven solo projects under her belt) prior to gaining mainstream recognition on Butterfly know she isn’t a stranger to addressing issues of concern to the Black community in her music, way beyond baby hair and Afros.
Take, for example, her performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk performance series at Howard University last month. Joined by her mentor, producer and The Jamla label head 9th Wonder and the Strom Troopers, Rapsody—in between sharing her thoughts on Black female beauty standards and Black fatherhood—performed songs from her latest album, Beauty and the Beast.
EBONY.com caught up with the Grammy winner to talk about working on To Pimp a Butterfly, her love for hip-hop and her mentor, 9th Wonder.
EBONY: How excited were you when you heard about all the Grammy nominations for To Pimp a Butterfly?
Rapsody: I knew he was gonna get nominated. The first night I heard the project, I knew how special it was. Albums like this don’t come around too often. I wasn’t surprised he got nominated, but I was surprised that he got nominated 11 times and one less than [Michael Jackson]. I am so proud of him. He worked hard and is such a genius at what he does. It’s great to see that they recognized that. I have to pinch myself and realize I’m part of that too. It’s inspiring to know that he tapped somebody like me who didn’t have a big name on the shoulder and was like, “I need you.”
EBONY: How did “Complexion (Zulu Love)” come about?
Rapsody: It was a process that happened over two years. I meet Kendrick for the first time in 2011. I had been a fan of his music and we formed a friendship. I was in New York shooting a video in DJ Premier’s studio. 9th Wonder called Kendrick while he was in Africa. Kendrick told him he was working on his new album and he has an idea and he wants Rapsody to be on it. This was late summer, early fall of 2013. I didn’t hear anything from him for another year and a half.
Jan 11, 2015: I was stuck at the airport in Charlotte and I was going to a show in Toronto. 9th Wonder texted me and asked me if I was sitting down. He told Kendrick wants you on the next album. Kendrick ended up calling me and we talked about the concept. He was in Africa when he came up with the concept. He said he saw all these different shades of people. He thought that this is what it should be, us co-existing like this. We shouldn’t look at each as dark or light. We are all beautiful as human beings, but he really wanted to do something for us.
He didn’t really have to go into what that meant, ’cause as Black people, we all know what that means, as far as the history of slavery with the light-skin versus dark-skin issue and how that history still affects how we interact with each other today.
When he sent the song, all he sent was the beat. I didn’t know anything about the album, sound or concept. I didn’t ask either. He told me to just do you. I felt like I was going in blindfolded, but I just did me. I didn’t hear his verse, but we touched on the same things. I thought that was dope.
EBONY: Colorism is like a cancer in our community that just won’t stop spreading. Back in the ’90s, there was a much more diverse reflection of Black beauty in the media. I know being a positive role model for kids is important to you. How can we ensure that little Black girls’ and boys’ self-esteem don’t suffer?
Rapsody: They need more exposure to images that show us all beautiful. It starts with what you are taught at home. You turn on the TV and see the same images over and over of what a beautiful Black female should have: and that’s big butt, big boobs, light skin and European straight hair. If that is all you see, you are gonna have issues if you don’t look like that. I grew up with a wide range of females to look up to. There was so many different women, from MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Missy [Elliott] and Lauryn Hill. We had choice, and we had variety.
I don’t want my nieces and nephews worrying about how light or dark they are or the texture of their hair. It’s hard enough being Black and female. I want to be somebody that inspires them to be themselves. I got a tweet from a dad saying how he and his daughter can listen to [my] music. I try to say profound things. That’s not to say my music is preachy.
EBONY: You have a core following who know you and know how much work you’ve been putting in to get to where you are today. For those who just discovered you on To Pimp a Butterfly, can you share with us what drew you to hip-hop and emceeing?
Rapsody: I wrote my first rhyme in the fall of 2005. I knew I wanted to be a rapper when I was 5. When I saw MC Lyte’s video for “Poor Georgie,” I knew that is what I want: to do that. Seeing her doing it made me see that a girl can do it and be really good at it. I don’t think I had the confidence or the push growing up in a small country town in South Carolina to go after it. There is not a lot of culture or art there. My parents wanted me to get a job that would support me. It wasn’t till I was in college that I pursued it.
It took me being around people to get me motivated. A best friend of mine was rapping in a group, and he said let’s start a hip-hop organization. Hip-hop was missing on campus. We did it with four other guys. We would have rap battles, parties and a free show. Everyone either rapped, made beats, breakdanced or did graffiti. I was the only one who didn’t necessarily have a talent.
A lot of times, if we had an event, I would host. For the last three or four years, I was writing poetry. So in the middle of a show, I may do a spoken word piece. One day I was hanging out with them while they were recording a mixtape. I had written a rhyme and they told me to try and get in the booth just for fun. I got in and recorded two songs for the first time. They put it on the mixtape.
One the guys was interning with 9th Wonder at the time. He told 9th Wonder about us and asked if he could come talk to us. He came and listened to the tape and gave us his criticism after every song. I sat as far away from him as possible. I’m scared he is gonna hate what I did. He listened to the song over and over. He looks at everyone and points to me and says, “that is your star right there.”
He listened to it again two more times after that. That’s all I needed to go forward. I mean, this is 9th Wonder! And he has worked with one of my fave artist, which is Jay Z. If he is telling me I have something, now is the time to go for it. He took me under his wing. I signed with him in 2008, and he has been pushing me ever since.
EBONY: What kind of advice did he have for you?
Rapsody: He told me I had to work on my cadence, that was the number one thing. The flow was important. I had the lyrics and wordplay, but the delivery needed work. He gave me homework to do. He gave me a list of eight albums to study. He said, “Don’t listen to them like you normally do. Don’t listen to what they are saying but how they are saying it, how they are breathing, what words they put inflections on and where.” That’s exactly what I did.
EBONY: What were the albums you studied?
Rapsody: Snoop’s Doggystyle, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders. And the one I listened to over and over for months was (Jay Z’s) The Black Album. I knew it word for word and front to back. Even to this day I can’t listen to an album without listening to how it rides and the inflections, because that’s in me. The cadence is one of the most important part of a hip-hop song. Your voice is another important element. I used to rhyme with a high-pitched voice, so I had to find the right tone of my voice that wasn’t too high and not too low that I sound like man. Once you master flow, everything falls into place. I think my flow is poetic.
Before I started writing rhymes, I was writing poetry. I was in love in high school and got my heart broken, and I started writing poetry. I wasn’t known for talking about my feelings. I was reading the dictionary one day and I came across the definition of rhapsody. It’s poetry spoken with great emotion, and that is what music is to me. Poetry is my foundation.
EBONY: You and 9th Wonder make great music together. How is it working with him?
Rapsody: He is very down to earth and very humble. He is hilarious too, and that always breaks the ice. It’s real easy and laid back to work with him. He doesn’t like to overthink anything. Everything is a teaching moment. I recorded for two or three years before I recorded my first mixtape. He wants to see you do well. We’ve worked together so long now that it’s second nature. I can tell just by looking at him what he likes or if something is missing. His love for soul makes me gravitate to his beats. They tell stories, his beats, and they are emotional. They don’t even need a rapper on it. He tells me to make music that feels good and everything will fall into place.
EBONY: You’ve been fortunate to have two hip-hop giants co-sign your work.
Rapsody: I worked for it hard. My advice to any new artist is you have to be patient, especially if you are doing it to be around for 20 years. You can’t come in and do it ’cause it’s popular and you want to make it big quickly. You have to build a strong foundation.
At this point, I’ve been at it for so long with all the ups and downs that I can’t be shocked by what is happening now. This is what I’ve been working towards from day one. The artists I look up to are legends. I want to go down as one of the best to ever do it when it is all said and done. To get there I had to be myself and be patient. I could get that fast money or have a career that lasts 20 years. I respect the culture and art that much that I want to do it right.
EBONY: Hip-hop fans today have a short attention span. They are so used to digesting simple lyrics. As someone who takes much care into writing your songs, does this frustrate you?
Rapsody: To say I never got frustrated by it would be a lie because it is frustrating. People do have short attention spans. I could put out a project tomorrow and two weeks from now they are asking for the next one. These kids are growing up in a different time, when everything comes to them fast. I came up in a time when only the best of the best were on TV and radio. You can be artistic, creative with your wordplay, and people knew how to break down lyrics. These kids today don’t know how to break down lyrics.
I tell 9th all the time that I had to go back and rewrite a lot of verses because I go too deep and they can’t digest it. It is frustrating, ’cause I want to get off and be creative. You feel like you have to hold yourself back.
There is also a challenge to it finding a middle ground. People will dismiss you too if something sounds too deep. When To Pimp a Butterfly came out, Black people were saying it’s too Black or it’s too smart. When did being smart become not cool? What does too Black even mean? I just don’t understand. People are scared to be different. Having funk and soul on your album is not cool ’cause it’s not like what is on the radio. It took someone like Kendrick to get 11 nominations for people to pay attention. There is a culture shift. You have these radio artists and they are famous but they’re not selling albums.
EBONY: You are working on a new album, right?
Rapsody: Yes, I am. That has been consuming my year outside of touring and spot dates. My focus has been finishing this next album. It’s executive produced by myself, 9th Wonder and Terrace Martin. I’m excited to have Terrace on board. Just to have him be more hands on with this project to bring it to life is great. A lot of people associate me with dope rhymes and beats, but I think on this we really went personal on some stories to let people know a little more about me.
It’s a lot more musical and there are more instrumentation. That’s where Terrace comes in. I want to make songs for women, but at the same time, my reach is so wide I don’t want to lose the guys. I want to find a balance. I think we did a good job with balance. It’s not just dope beats and rhymes. I experimented a lot with my sound and played with my voice and made it an instrument.
EBONY: What inspired you to experiment with your sound this time around?
Rapsody: I was really influenced, to be honest, with To Pimp a Butterfly. That’s how music is supposed to be like. I used to hear stories from Premier when he’d hear other people’s music it would inspire him to go back and listen to his own and do it better. That album gave me a lot of ideas and creative juice to do more. Just to show my growth as an artist. It’s been a gradual growth from my first mixtape to now. I try to learn something new on every project. I want people to hear some growth with every project. It’s a great time for music.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.