Rapsody 'Betty Shabazz' prod. 9th Wonder (Jamla is the Squad, Jamla Records, 2014) & recent collaborations with Anderson .Paak

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.
— Rapsody, Interview with Alexandra Phanor-Faury, Ebony magazine in 2016

(Here is Rapsody's video for 'Betty Shabazz', with a multitude of multitude of views: I prefer to skip videos if possible, it’s just a preference of mine not necessarily universally shared ...)

Unquestionably, for me, the highlight of the showcase of talent from North Carolina - and elsewhere - produced by 9th Wonder/hosted by Statik Selektah, Jamla is the Squad, is this track by Rapsody, ‘Betty Shabazz’ which has an amazing moment at around 3’15” that is pure magic and possibly one of the best, or one of my favourite, rhymes in recent hip-hop.

Toying with, playing around with the ‘on’ sound, speeding up and falling apart at the same time and full of real joy, made manifest in Rapsody’s delivery. It’s unexpected and special and makes the song, ably supported by the chilled out music behind it.

I ain’t heard nothing hot since Control dropped
They taking longer than Detox
They don’t wanna Vol-tron and so on
Pour on, feel my forearm, wear it like Luanne Rohan
Heart on sleeve, chief smile because we move on
Mistubishi Galant, dupont
Been a mutant since mama slipping coupons for croisannts and croutons
Do some damage, get at em like I’m a neutron, bouton
Pass on em, recycle em like a Mormon
I rained, it ain’t storming

The verse ends with a reference to sexism to step over it: 'I’m ignoring all that female rapping shit’s ignorant/Competing with every emcee, come step if you wanna see us rap.' I really love this, especially the line: ‘Pour on, feel my forearm, wear it like Luanne Rohan’ just on the basis of the sounds of the words, Rapsody's facility with language and happiness to be found there.

‘Betty Shabazz’ starts all-dreamy Xanadu, with Blaxploitation notes descending and is beautifully recorded (if you listen to it with headphones you’ll notice this, the way the sound deepens at certain points, intensifies with the faux-backing vocals effect, increasing in density almost). A wonderful grace contrasts with Rapsody’s signature style; in that the musical deep space offers up a feathery bed for the knives of her delivery.

Such contrast is also why her collaborations with Californian musician Anderson .Paak work so well and is such a clever move. In many respects, they are the perfect match because they are so apparently different. While Rapsody’s persona is direct, to the point, possibly lacking ambiguity, Paak’s musical universe is lyrical, 70s-emotional and highly expressive (with lots of silvery turns; his music is gold lamé and chandeliers, Rapsody's is in a recording booth, headphones on). It makes sense for the two artists to work together, as the music they produce brings out something latent in the other, while smoothly upsetting gender stereotypes along the way.

See, for example, Rapsody’s verse on the track ‘Without you’ on Anderson .Paak’s album, Malibu that made me laugh; it’s hilarious in some parts (being funny was not something I had associated with her).

Or the over-the-top erotic charge, that remains light-hearted on ‘OooWee’ from Rapsody’s Crown, also released in 2016 …

Compared to the rest of the record which was just a bit too straight for me, when I heard this, I thought this is just great; so different, fresh and full of life and liked it immediately.  

When Kendrick Lamar was asked in an interview, why he chose to have Rapsody as the sole featured artist on his record, To Pimp a Butterfly, he replied simply: ‘She’s talented’. Impossible to disagree, especially as Rapsody continues to display her artistic gifts in unexpected ways, moving forward.

Here’s Rapsody talking about how she started out and her meeting with her colleague, 9th Wonder who has championed her work from the beginning.

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.

(…) 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.'