Rapsody (aka Marianna Evans) started rapping at North Carolina State University, performing in collectives before splitting to go solo, releasing her first studio album in 2012. Named after her grandmother, Laila’s Wisdom got a richly deserved Grammy nomination in 2018, being pipped to the win by collaborator Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. (which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize to boot).
Lamar is one of several starry guests on the album, with Anderson .Paak and Busta Rhymes also making appearances. Such talent would threaten to steal the limelight guesting on the album of a lesser rapper, but not Rapsody. Rather it’s tracks of pure Rapdsody like “Chrome” that shine brightest on the album.
Rapsody is cool and assured lyrically, her words sitting on the back of the beat. There are moments of powerful story-telling in “U Used 2 Love Me”, and she packs a real punch in “You Should Know”: “I’m a hero, don’t be stressin’ the zeroes and the commas / Lookin’ anacondas, know they comin’ with apples and oranges / Satan playin’ me, I ain’t Adam unless we talkin’ ’bout bombin’ / Over Baghdad”. Complex flows are greeted by memorable, soulful choruses.
It’s still unfortunately something of a rarity for a woman MC like Rapsody to attain the visibility she now enjoys in a genre and industry dominated by men, in which sexist language and misogyny still seems to rule the charts. But Rapsody carries the torch comfortably, whilst clearly bowing to those who came before her: she starts the album not with her own voice, but sampling Aretha Franklin’s “(To Be) Young, Gifted, and Black”.
The influence of other titans like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Mos Def is plain to hear, but it never sounds dated; nor does it cheaply use contemporary trends or ticks. Laila’s Wisdom will go down as a timeless body of work.