It’s no surprise that Rapsody’s days are starting to run together. Ever since she was featured on Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy nominated To Pimp a Butterfly her career and life has shifted into a hazy cruise control featuring one amazing milestone after another. This year alone, Rapsody signed a partnership deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, she was invited to the White House to discuss criminal justice reform and President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. She also learned that President Obama was a fan of her music. She then concluded the year with the release of the Crown EP, which has received glowing critical acclaim in an extremely crowded final quarter of star-studded hip-hop releases.
“We have to have balance,” said Rapsody, the passion in her voice coming through clear as she called in from Bright Lady Studio in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rapsody is not only noted for her captivating lyricism but increasingly for the positive social messages she puts in her music. The balance she is referring to is her way to counter-act some of the outrageous depictions of black America you see on television, whether it’s reality shows or the evening news. Rapsody reminds everyone on the lead track of her EP Crown, “In life there ain’t no rules, rule/Whatever you dream you can do, do/They tell me I’m a king!/They tell me I’m a queen!”
I spoke to Rapsody to talk the year that was and how she plans to continue building on her success in 2017. She was quick to remind me that while some things change – one thing clearly remains the same – Jamla is the Squad and Roc Nation is the family!
You’ve had an amazing year. What highlights stand out the most when you reflect on 2016?
It’s been a lot. To be honest, I get my years confused; they’ve all started to jumble up ever since To Pimp a Butterfly came out but from this year – being on Anderson’s [Paak] Malibu, it was really exciting to start the year off that way. Signing to Roc Nation, that’s at the top of the list. Jay-Z is my favorite rapper so it’s always been a dream of mine to be a part of the Roc family, so for them to have a partnership with Jamla and for it to be natural – it’s family, we love everyone over there so that’s really special. Going to meet President Obama for the first time, now I’ve been four times, and have the President of the free world like your music and ask you to help push his initiative, that’s monumental. I can’t even put a price tag on that. That’s a lifetime top of the list, but I still don’t have a picture – I need a picture…
How did you not get a picture?
We’ve taken pictures but I haven’t received it yet. I’m waiting for it. [Laughs.]
You’ve had all these accomplishments and let’s not forget you dropped a project this year.
Yes, I was going to end with that one. To end the year with an EP [Crown] and for it to be received as well as it has been…it’s been a good year – lots of good things – lots of good energy. And it’s a great way to walk in to 2017 with that momentum. I’m really excited.
There are some things that you just can’t plan for – meeting the President of the United States, you can’t plan for that but how do you go about setting goals?
I do it a few ways, long-term goals are always at the top of my mind. I keep notes in my phone or in my book bag. I’m always writing ideas downs and goals that I want to accomplish that I know might not materialize in the next year or even the next three years but it something that you work on, and within those long-term goals you build smaller stepping stones towards them. Then I have my short-term goals that I want to accomplish, whether that is being nominated for a Grammy or start writing children’s books, or headlining my first nationwide tour. It could even be, I want to work with this artist. Those are the types of goals I make at the beginning of each year, it all depends but I make both long-term and immediate goals.
With all of the significant events you had going on, how did Crown come about and what were you trying to convey with the project?
We were really just flying by the seat of our pants. Originally, I wanted to release an album this year but I decided that I wanted to take more time with it but I hadn’t put out a project in two years so I wanted to give my fans something. So the team got together, Jamla and Roc Nation, and we decided to put out a mixtape, and we did it in three weeks.
You did Crown in three weeks?
Yeah, we did it in three weeks. The only song that we had was “OooWee” with Anderson Paak, we did that about a year ago. But we [Jamla/Roc] came up with the idea and had about 3 or 4 songs and I was on the phone with 9th [Wonder] and I was like, “What we going to call it?” and I named a few ideas and they were okay but 9th said, “What about Crown?” and I really liked that. The title came from the poem I did on the intro of the project. The first time I met President Obama, I went to talk about his My Brother’s Keeper initiative and criminal injustice. I did the video and it wasn’t attached to anything – it was a stand-alone piece specifically for My Brother’s Keeper but we decided to put it on the mixtape and have it be the first song. It had such a good feel that we could build upon that energy. It ties into the album as well, Crown is a precursor to the album. Crown isn’t about being the best rapper. It’s not about me being the king or queen of hip-hop. It’s about owning your own light and growing into this heiress. It’s about being in control of your kingdom, your future, and all these crown jewels in life that you get from family, and friends, and experiences. Things I’ve learned in the [music] business. That makes you who you are as a person and when you really get to know yourself. Crown is me taking all of those crown jewels and saying this is who I am in life right now. This is who Rapsody is…who Marlanna is. Whereas the album is the journey that I took to get to this point to be able to wear my crown.
Making the music was the easy part. I probably recorded 25 songs for it, we kept 10 songs. We kept some verses here and there. The second verse on the song “2 AM” featuring Ab Soul, was a verse that didn’t make the album but everything else was new. The process would be 9th makes a beat and I’d say, “let me get that.” [Laughs.] I may have a concept that we work with or 9th may have concept that we played with and it was just coming up with the concepts, writing it, and working with it. 9th came up for the concept for “#Goals.” “Mad” was easy – working with Eric G. I really love the Solange album and Eric G flipped her song Mad and I had to rap on that. And the story of Crown is really crazy because 9th orders all my projects. He has a gift for that and so when I listened to it in order, it really tells a story. It all fell into place and I think that is because our team has been working together for so long that the chemistry is natural.
Jamla is such a tight knit unit with 9th, Khrysis, Kash, and the entire Soul Council. Is it a challenge to go outside of that team to work with other producers?
I work with outside producers. I’ve worked with DJ Premier…
Hold up – the legendary DJ Premier? I guess you can go outside of the Soul Council for that…[Laughs.]
Yeah. But to me, that is the level that the Soul Council is on. They set the bar so high that is what my ear is used to. It’s like eating steak every day, you can’t have someone give you a dried chicken nugget. That is the hardest part of working outside the family because my ear is already tuned to a certain level of music and I do have the Soul Council and Terrace Martin works with us a lot too, so I’m use to a certain level. I do have people send me beats all the time and when I have time I do listen to them and they are talented producers but you have to come through seven producers on the Soul Council and they’re at that level. And if you can meet that level, I’m down to work with anyone.
[Question by Hip Hop Henry] You have a number of special guests that are featureS on Crown, one standout is Raphael Saadiq. Have you worked with him before?
No, I had not worked with him before. It was amazing. It wasn’t planned; it was really spur of the moment. I was in LA for a week working on the album with Terrace Martin. It was me, Terrace, Young Guru, 9th, and some of our friends in LA. 9th had never met him either but they starting talking and so 9th reached out to see if he was in town so we could play the album for him. He came through and we were all really excited. We played him some of our music and then he played us some of his music; which was phenomenal. He played this one song called “Gonna Miss You” and we played it over and over again – when we like something, we play it into the ground. He asked 9th to make a beat out of it and flip it for something on his album. 9th flipped it and the chorus of the beat was crazy and we sat on it for a while and came back to North Carolina and we just kept playing it and after a while I had to touch it. So 9th was like, let’s just do something and send it to him and see what he says. The song ended up being “Gonna Miss You” and he let us have it. Something that he was using for his album – he let us have it so that meant a lot. It was just an amazing experience, I didn’t really get to ask him a lot of questions or anything like that but I got to watch him work, shake his hand, and rap on his song. That was amazing. He’s a legend.
[Question by Jess] Your music has a lot of content about empowerment. You often reference men being Kings and women being Queens. Why is that messaging important to you?
It is empowering. We have to understand that we are Kings and Queens. That’s how I was raised and I don’t hear that message enough in the mainstream. I want to provide some balance. I take my position and influence very seriously. I know that I have listeners that are grown but I also have a lot of listeners that are young. I get messages all that time that says they [parents] appreciate my music because they can listen to it with their child and they both like it. They send me pictures of their young children watching my videos. I want to be to them what Queen Latifah was to me – what MC Lyte was to me – Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, so that’s why it’s important for me to push that message so that those kids grow up in this world with a lot of confidence. And to know and own who they are, especially children of color and people of color because I don’t think we have enough mainstream imagines of that. When you’re giving too much of the wrong thing, you start to think that is what you are and that is not the case. There are a lot of [television] shows that depict women as having certain types of attitudes and people don’t know that it’s not real – that most of these shows are scripted for entertainment. We don’t know how to divide ourselves from that. The very first time I went to South Africa, 9th had gone before me and told me how amazing it was. When he got off the airplane the first thing they said to him was, Welcome Home. When I first got to South Africa, right as I got off the plane, a lady asked me was I from America, I said yes. She said, “Can I ask you a question? Are all the women in America like the ones on Love and Hip-Hop? So you see, I didn’t get a Welcome Home like 9th. Everyone is watching, the world is watching and they can’t separate the real from the fake. There are a lot of people in the world that may not have been around black people so what they get from us is what’s on television or what’s on the news and that image is not always positive. That is why it’s important for me to put strong messages in my music. We need that balance.
You had strong words during this election season. You wrote a popular editorial piece aimed towards supporters of Donald Trump and that article spread throughout the hip-hop community. Now that we understand the post-election landscape, where do we go from here?
Moving forward – all we can do is be present and aware. We have to keep our eyes on things that are going on and we have to be more involved than ever in our community, in government, in local elections. We have to voice our opinions – if something is not right, call your local government, if they are not listening – make your voice heard – go protest – stand out in front of their office and shout until you’re blue in the face. Write letters. Be involved in your local schools. I think that is the only way we can move forward – be present, be aware, be knowledgeable and understand that we do have power. We can affect change and we can sway opinion but we have to be present and we have to be present in large numbers and unified. I think moving forward that is the best way to start. I’ve never been one to be on politics. I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness and it wasn’t until President Obama got into office that I got interested in it – so from what I know that is the best way to move forward. It was important for me to write the piece because I know my position in hip-hop and while I am still a new an up-and-coming artist, I have influence and I wanted to speak on it just to say that we do care. I liked when Michelle (Obama) talked about Donald Trump, she never said his name and that’s why I took the same approach in my piece. You’ve heard the saying that all press is good press; I felt that played out. Any crazy thing he (Trump) did – it seemed to make him more popular. Even for people that didn’t support him, they couldn’t stop talking about him. And instead of talking about him, I’d rather you talk about something you do like – spread a positive message. It seems to me that these elections are coming down to popularity contest – whose name is out there more with branding and marketing. And Donald Trump knows that and capitalized on that. He just said the most outlandish things because he knows America feeds off of that rhetoric, that drama. And the more his name is out there the more popular he is – and the more popular he is, the more he is able to reach the people that will fall for his gimmick.
Let’s talk 2017, what should the people expect?
An album is definitely coming in 2017. I think Crown really set the table. People can expect more tours and more shows but that’s all I can say right now.
Interview conducted by Cheats, Hip Hop Henry and Jess