Why you should care
Because “the only thing that matters is that you are dope.”
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When you’re from Snow Hill, North Carolina — population maybe 1,800 — the odds of making it as a successful hip-hop artist are about as remote as winning Powerball. But in the case of Marlanna Evans, better known as Rapsody, when you dedicate your life to defying those odds, developing a reputation for wicked wordplay and singular storytelling along the way, you might find yourself embraced by an award-winning producer, trading verses with Kendrick Lamar and being nominated for not one but two 2018 Grammy Awards.
The 29-year-old wordsmith, one of five children from a lower-middle-class family, was handed a different dream by her hardworking parents. “As a woman in the South, [you’re taught] to graduate high school, go to college, get a good job, get married, have kids and that’s your life,” she says. But Rapsody wasn’t interested in toeing the line. Instead, the 5-foot-3 rapper wanted to play basketball like Kobe Bryant and rhyme like Lauryn Hill.
The fact that Rapsody can lyrically outshine most of her male peers makes her a simultaneous gift and curse to the rap male ego.
Kathy Iandoli, editor, Underground Hip Hop
While her father worked long hours as a mechanic for DuPont and her mother did the same hand-painting china patterns for Lenox, Rapsody spent hours listening to Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. But MC Lyte’s “Poor Georgie” was the game-changer — a heartbreaking storyline set down by a female rapper more than holding her own in the male hip-hop world.
“That was my first introduction to a woman rhyming and I was just so wrapped into the story of the song,” she says. Still, becoming a successful rapper seemed so intangible that Rapsody stayed focused on basketball while penning poetry and kicking her rhymes into the vacuum hose that doubled as a make-believe microphone.
A star on the Greene Central High School team, she turned down a scholarship to play for Meredith College and enrolled at North Carolina State after her older sister, who lived in Raleigh, told her about the city’s hip-hop culture and Plum Crazy, a nightclub where top-selling rappers performed. Once on campus, Rapsody started a hip-hop club, H20, with a group of friends. As word of her talent spread, the rap collective known as Kooley High came calling — asking her to be their first female member.`
While Rapsody was diligently honing her craft, her brother-in-law handed her a CD of beats from his friend Patrick. The name didn’t register, but Patrick was Patrick Douthit, aka 9th Wonder, the Grammy-winning producer on Mary J. Blige’s “Good Woman Down.”
Refusing to embarrass herself in front of someone who also worked with Jay-Z, Rapsody turned down numerous meetings with 9th Wonder, until the day in 2008 when he showed up at an H20 meeting and wanted to hear the music Kooley High had been working on.
“I was sick to my stomach,” she recalls. “He says, ‘Who is this rapping?’ and asks to play my song about six more times. He looks at everybody and says, ‘That’s your star.’ That was all I needed to hear.”
Affirmation enough to convince Rapsody to channel everything into her music, skipping work and cutting class, much to the chagrin of her family. “I’m so into music … [I’m] not able to pay my $300 rent to my sister because my checks are short. I’m about to get kicked out,” she says, recalling nights she wept from the pressure to get a real job.
And then the odds turned. Rap blogs started taking notice of the lone female member of Kooley High and, arguably, the most talented, and she eventually broke from the group. 9th Wonder signed her to his Jamla Records label and, in 2012, released her debut studio album, The Idea of Beautiful, a project hailed as a female rapper focused on intricate rhymes and content to leave the sex appeal to the Nicki Minajes of the industry. And finally, the chance of a lifetime when the North Carolina emcee was asked by Kendrick Lamar to be the only rapper on “Complexion,” a featured song on To Pimp a Butterfly.
Contributing verse on the Compton rapper’s album, which won a Grammy in 2015, was the opportunity Rapsody had been preparing for her entire life, and it instantly placed her in the company of the best female emcees in hip-hop. But Rapsody isn’t interested in being the best female emcee — she wants to be the best rapper, period.
“She has the ability to be emotional without being called soft,” 9th Wonder says. “She has the wordplay and the ability to connect line to line on a level with some of the greatest.”
Praise you’d be tempted to discount coming from Rapsody’s producer and mentor. Until, that is, you take a listen to songs like “The Pain,” a searing take on being Black in America — the street violence, broken families, sexism — and you understand that hers is a monumental talent. But is it possible to be too talented in an industry where image reigns supreme, especially when many female artists are promoting sex ahead of skill?
“In the post–Lauryn Hill world of women in hip-hop, lyrical skill is viewed as an ancillary tool for women to possess,” says Underground Hip Hop editor Kathy Iandoli as she reflects on Rapsody’s uphill battle to succeed as a female hip-hop artist. “The fact that Rapsody can lyrically outshine most of her male peers makes her a simultaneous gift and curse to the rap male ego.”
It’s a challenge Rapsody isn’t facing on her own. Last year, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation signed her to a management deal that adds her name to a roster that includes superstars like Rihanna, J. Cole and Lil Wayne. And in September, she released Laila’s Wisdom, her second studio album, a project she told OZY would make listeners “fall in love with hip-hop all over again.”
It also earned her Grammy nods for best rap song and best rap album — the lone female in a category she shares with Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar. Rapsody’s rise is proof that she continues to defy the odds: “I want to be an artist that shows women that they do have a choice to be respected off their talent alone and not because of … looks or gender. The only thing that matters is that you are dope.”
This story has been updated since it first ran on Aug. 17, 2017.