Music

Why Rapsody’s ‘Laila’s Wisdom’ Deserves The Grammy For Best Rap Album

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The nominees for the 2018 Grammys have been announced and one unexpected name stood out among the field of those selected to compete for Best Rap Album Of 2017: Rapsody, whose Laila’s Wisdom major label debut turned out to be one of 2017’s many revelations.

Rapsody, born Marlanna Evans, is a 34-year-old native of Snow Hill, North Carolina, and a legitimate 10-year veteran of the rap game. Getting her start with the North Carolina rap collective Kooley High on producer 9th Wonder’s 2007 The Dream Merchant Vol. 2 compilation, Rapsody has slowly, but steadily, increased her profile with a series of lyrically-focused, 9th-helmed releases, including four mixtapes, three EPs, and one other studio album, The Idea Of Beautiful.

With each subsequent release, Rapsody refined both her dextrous wordplay and her burgeoning songwriting skill, ultimately leading to a career-turning appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s sensational 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly on the track “Complexion.” Now, Rapsody is competing with Kendrick — and Jay-Z, Migos, and Tyler The Creator — for the Best Rap Album Grammy.

What’s more, she absolutely deserves to win.

Let’s be clear here: All of the albums in the running — yes, even Migos’ Culture — are very good and stand a decent chance of winning. I doubt anyone will be too angry if Jay-Z beats Kendrick or vice versa. Tyler The Creator broke one of the many molds of what good hip-hop can be, and in doing so, may have become the first, successfully mainstream openly queer person in rap music. Laila’s Wisdom does what each of their albums does, in spades. What’s more, in a year that has seen the first No. 1 single from a solo female rapper, Rapsody winning the Best Rap Album in 2018 would not only make history but also tie off the single most successful year for women in hip-hop in a splendid display of almost fated symmetry.

In my review of Laila’s Wisdom, I wrote that Rapsody has “held her own alongside nearly every notable lyricist in hip-hop, from Chance The Rapper and Phonte Coleman to Rah Digga and Raekwon, earning the respect of peers and mentors alike,” and determined that Laila’s Wisdom was the album that would finally elevate her to the same notable status as those names who are regularly brought up in “best rapper” discussions. I concluded that the album completed the development phase of her growth as an MC, perfecting her craft, and solidifying her spot at the top of the rap game.

Her inclusion in the selection of Best Rap Album nominees only confirms that opinion; in a year that was both top-heavy and prolific with regards to full-length rap releases, Rapsody is one of the five that stood out most. Granted, some of that is down to her newly-minted status as a Jay-Z product. No doubt, her connections to Roc Nation and Kendrick Lamar increased her profile among nomination committee members, who’ve never seemed all that aware of the breadth of rap releases before.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all down to networking and name recognition. After all, there’s very little chance voters aren’t familiar with 2 Chainz, who has a television show on Viceland and a Lil Jon-like adlib of his stage name that yuppies can’t seem to get enough of mimicking. Logic, for all the faults of his ambitiously-conceived-but-imperfectly-executed album, Everybody, has a top 10 single about suicide prevention — exactly the sort of tearjerking sentimental backstory that awards committees love to gobble up.

Yet, they chose Rapsody, a veritable fountain of complex one-liners and heady Black culture references, with none of the gooey shmaltz that won Macklemore his Best Rap Album Grammy over Kendrick Lamar in 2012, or earned Ludacris his belated, make-up win for Release Therapy in 2007 (let’s keep it tall, he should have won for Word Of Mouf in 2003, but nobody is beating Eminem at the Grammys unless Macklemore, G-Eazy, Logic, and Post Malone all release the same year with no other eligible contenders). The beats on Laila’s Wisdom are soulful but far simpler in construction than many of the grandiose, big-studio productions on past winners. Jon Brion does not put in an appearance, nor does Dr. Dre or any children’s choir.

Rapsody earned her way to prominence the old-fashioned way; she honed her craft over a decade of solid releases and she maintained the same team that got her here. If that’s good enough for the nomination, it’s good enough to win — especially in a field comprised of albums that largely do the same. The difference is that Laila’s Wisdom does it with more depth, more breadth, more wit, more heart, and without any of the accompanying frills. There are no fancy cosigns and although the sample-driven, boom-bap-inspired beats are embellished with live instrumentation, the album is hip-hop at its most fundamental; dope beats, dope rhymes, and a ton of charisma. What more is needed than that?

Finally, there’s the elephant in the room. Hip-hop’s mistrust and mistreatment of women have been almost comically well-documented. The first and last woman to win a Grammy for Best Rap Album was Lauryn Hill. She won as part of The Fugees. Think about what that says about not only hip-hop music and culture but how both are perceived by the greater mainstream. You cannot tell me that Missy Elliott didn’t deserve a statue for Under Construction. And yes, we can debate about whether or not mainstream validation should be important to hip-hop but I refuse to pretend that the culture lives in some kind of vacuum or that the pioneers didn’t spend the better part of a decade fighting for the acknowledgment of rap as a legitimate genre of music. Hip-hop is the mainstream now, whether hip-hop or the mainstream like it or not.

That means that it’s time to acknowledge the contributions of Black women to both. In a year where Hidden Figures and Girls Trip blew away box offices and Insecure dominated Monday morning water cooler talk, it would be nothing less than a travesty to overlook Laila’s Wisdom as the rap equivalent, especially after an Afrolatino woman overturned the reigning pop princess of the Billboard Hot 100 to earn the first no. 1 single for a female rapper since The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. To make so much progress in a single year only to sidestep the final watermark would feel wasteful and negligent — almost like having a woman win an election by popular vote only to let an archaic electoral mechanism allow a babbling incompetent clearance to the nuclear codes.

Rapsody deserves the Best Rap Album Grammy, straight up and down. Not only has she more than earned it, her win would actually make history. Why come so close only to throw away yet another opportunity to do so? While a case can and will be made for each of the five albums nominated, only one could truly have the culture-shaping impact that these awards are meant to have.

Not only does a Rapsody win finally validate women in hip-hop (and not as part-time R&B singers but as 100% rappers), it can legitimize the Grammy Awards in the eyes of hip-hop. A dope rapper, a traditionalist, no-nonsense stalwart of “real hip-hop” winning wouldn’t just be a victory for Rapsody, for women, or for the award show itself — it would be a real triumph for hip-hop as a whole.

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