When Rapsody spits, “I ain’t five percent, unless we talkin’ top MCs,” on “Power” from her latest LP Laila’s Wisdom, it would be difficult to formulate a convincing argument to the contrary — especially as she is immediately cosigned on the same song by one of the truly undisputed members of that rarified class, none other than Kendrick Lamar.
It’s been a long time coming; Rapsody has dropped mixtape after mixtape since 2007 with little fanfare. Every release has seen her talent and gift for intricate lyricism increase by leaps and bounds, and yet, how rarely does her name come up in “best rapper” conversations?
If the cosign from Kendrick Lamar wasn’t enough, what about Black Thought’s high praise from “Nobody”?: “I’m on the same wavelength the sister Rapsody is on / I love it when she get on her Bahamadia joint.” Busta Rhymes appears on “You Should Know.” Actually, she’s 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. Laila’s Wisdom, her first full-length album with a major label (Roc Nation), is the culmination of her lyrical growth, but also shows how far she’s come as a songwriter and a creator. It’s time for the rap game to stop overlooking this incredibly talented rapper.
She has always had a gift for dense, cerebral rhymes that require multiple listens to fully digest, but it’s clear the time she’s spent honing her craft — especially with word jugglers like Kendrick and his Top Dawg Entertainment cohorts Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q — has paid off with a tremendous increase in charisma. Where she was once defined by a choppy, monotone flow, here she’s added a smoothness born of a willingness to simply let go and allow the beat to dictate her inflection.
And while her content remains as insightful and diverse as ever, these new vocal tics elevate the material. She’s incorporated more complex rhyme schemes; the multi-syllabic flow on “Knock On My Door” is a pleasant surprise, as is the way she elongates sounds on the aptly titled, upbeat “Sassy,” which is inspired by Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”
She harmonizes; she ad-libs; her once-Spartan delivery has blossomed into an engaging, charismatic persona that makes you want to hit that rewind button — not just to figure out what she said, but how she said it. Rapsody always had game; now she has flair, and it makes all the difference. But that’s not the only place she’s made tremendous strides; Rapsody’s musical landscape has flourished as well. She has shown loyalty to her Jamla crew throughout her career, very rarely straying away from the production efforts of 9th Wonder, Eric G., Khrysis, and Nottz.
She’s maintained the same collaboration crew, but rather than the homogenous, sometimes tedious-sounding beats she rapped over on projects from Return Of The B-Girl to She Got Game have been embellished the same way as her flow has been. The palette’s expanded, true — “Power” adopts a more hard rock stance than we’re used to from Rapsody — but the more soulful productions have been fleshed out with live instrumentation, and the beats themselves morph and re-articulate themselves mid-song.
“Nobody” adds a jazzy keyboard solo to the bridge just as Black Thought’s gruff voice comes in, while the percussive swing snare from “You Should Know” drops out in favor of a stripped-down breakbeat atop an airy synth lead, taking the vibe from Rapsody sounding hard, to Busta Rhymes getting on his “Barry White sh*t.”
“A Rollercoaster Jam Called Love” is the pinnacle of Rapsody’s newfound willingness to experiment. Anchored by a trio of soulful, yet melancholy beats by 9th Wonder, “Rollercoaster”‘s drums are bolstered by live keys, organ, and Terrace Martin’s saxophone improvisation, all while Musiq Soulchild ad-libs and harmonizes throughout the background as Rapsody details an up-and-down relationship, breaking down the break up over the course of three verses on the ever-evolving beat. It all comes together so beautifully it’s almost impossible to just let it end.
Laila’s Wisdom is the same way. It ends, and you’ll be tempted to push that play button again and again. So few rap albums demand repeat listens in the modern, non-stop wave of easily-streamed, surprise-released projects, but Rapsody, having spent so much time earning her spot, isn’t so ready to let it go. All of her skills are on display as usual, but now she knows how to put on a show. Don’t look away.
Laila’s Wisdom is out now via Roc Nation. Get it here.