Being a dope emcee is admirable, but there’s something to be said for having the ability to transition from dope to great. It’s special to watch an artist who’s shown that she has potential for greatness take the next step toward greatness by crafting an exceptional album. With Laila’s Wisdom, Marlanna “Rapsody” Evans has taken that crucial next step.
Rapsody has been on her grind for years now. She first came up in the game with super producer and fellow North Carolina resident 9th Wonder and his Jamla Records squad in the late ’00s. She’s been releasing about a mixtape a year since 2011, as well as contributing stand-out guest appearances on other artists’ albums. Rapsody’s breakout moment was when she was the only rapper to drop a guest verse on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, making a definitive statement on the song “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” In 2016, Rapsody’s Crown EP was among the strongest releases of the year, and helped get her a deal with Roc Nation. Now with Laila’s Wisdom, she has created one of the strongest albums of 2017 and a definite contender for album of the year.
All of Rapsody’s previous work has represented a lead up to Laila’s Wisdom, a fully realized work of musical art where she expertly tackles a wide range of topics and employs many different lyrical styles. For production, 9th Wonder remains her primary muse, but she also employs fellow Jamla affiliates Khrysis and Eric G., as well as past collaborator Nottz. The resulting sound is both soulful and mature, evoking alternately feel-good and pensive vibes.
Rapsody’s ability to rap creatively about many topics and ideas remains one of her core strengths, as she sounds just as comfortable talking about cruising around her city on “Chrome (Oooh)” as she does speaking on how both men and women use each other for material gain on “Pay Up.” On another of the album’s vignettes, she illustrates the power of social media and the average person’s need to share their experiences on many different platforms in order to receive validation that their lives are important. Rapsody and Kendrick Lamar explore the complex dynamics of influence on “Power.” Here she describes how those in positions of governmental authority tend to abuse their power given to them by the people, while Kendrick raps about using his power as a celebrity to inspire his audience and empower them to take control of their destiny.
Rapsody demonstrates she can mix it up with the best of them on Laila’s Dream, showing she’s more than capable of dropping straight verbal fire on “You Should Now.” Serving as the album’s first single, she flexes her skills over a 9th Wonder beat that draws clear influences from Goodie Mob’s classic “Cell Therapy.”
The song features one of the best lyrical performances of the year, as she raps, “Flow so much I need life guards / Not like Rikers, them some whole new bars / Influenced by many but I’m a whole new star / There’s levels to this but I’m a whole new floor / They talking keys to success but I’m a whole new door / Still slipping through traffic screaming ‘That’s the allure’ / I'm breaking the law, was too much to ever ignore / I been exceeding the limit since I had an Accord.”
Rapsody is joined on “Nobody” by singers Anderson .Paak and Moonchild, as well as Black Thought of the Legendary Roots crew. Over smooth keys, Rapsody gets introspective, as she considers her role in hip-hop and the power of both underground and commercial music. Black Thought ends the track with a trademark outstanding guest verse, as he raps, “Lost soldier wit the bars on the shoulders of my uniform / That makes ’em ask what I do and who I do it for / Musically, I been on my Chiwetel Ejiofor / That’s 12 years a slave, but I’m on year 23 or 4 / Been a lyrical grand wizard like Theodore / I’m on the same wave length the sister Rapsody is on / I love it when she get on her Bahamadia joint.”
Rapsody explores loving one’s self on “Black & Ugly,” one of the album’s best songs. Over a rolling bassline, romping drums, and backing vocals from BJ the Chicago Kid, she explains how she learned to build her self-confidence and love herself knowing that she might not fit someone else’s stereotype of beautiful. She shrugs off any and all slings and arrows, rapping “So concerned with weight, I’m more Chucky than I am chubby / Confidence of a porn star the day I cut the horns off / Took all my demons threw ’em down hill in a buggy / Then stood on top the hill and did the Milly Rock and Dougie.”
Rapsody is also eloquent when rapping about love lost and then possibly regained. “U Used 2 Love Me” is a brief song that concerns the former, as she describes the dissolution of her relationship with her ex-partner, lamenting that their love for each other had unexpectedly dissipated into nothing without even realizing it. The track features a lengthy yet soulful keyboard and vocal intro from producer Terrance Martin, who sets the melancholy mood. Rapsody explains, “It’s like I woke up one day and I ain’t love you no more / Now everything you do gets on my nerves a little bit more / I gave you everything I had, I can't give you no more / It’s like there's levels to this thing and we ain’t on the same floor.”
Rapsody follows the song up with “Knock On My Door,” a detailed and sweet first-person account of her crush on her next-door neighbor. In the first two verses, she displays a level of awkwardness and vulnerability that few emcees ever attempt to express, as she at first admires him from afar, then admittedly tries to get his attention. The song culminates in the object of her affection finally visiting her home, with Rapsody charmingly flirting with him in the hopes of starting something special.
Laila’s Wisdom ends on a somber note with “Jesus Coming,” a heartbreaking song about the deadly results of gun violence in many of its forms. Rapsody raps from the perspective of three different shooting victims, each contemplating their lives and the situations that brought them there with pain, regret, and resignation as they lay dying. She first takes the perspective of an innocent reveler who caught a stray bullet during a tragic shoot-out at a house party. Then she assumes the role of a mother who was taking her daughter out to play before they’re both gunned down in the crossfire of two rival gangs. Finally, she tells the tale of a soldier taking his last breaths in a faraway land, fighting in a meaningless war. For the beat, 9th Wonder expertly manipulates a sample of Gospel singer Otis G. Johnson’s “Time to Go Home,” making it evocative of the sadness that permeates the track.
It’s always exciting to see an emcee that worked on honing her craft for close to a decade make the necessary big leap to become a truly dope hip-hop artist. Laila’s Wisdom is now the end of Rapsody’s beginning, and hopefully she will continue to establish herself as one of the strongest and freshest voices in hip-hop. But in the short term, it’s good just to hear an ambitiously great album from an artist who has truly come into her own.
Notable Tracks: “Black & Ugly” | “Jesus Coming” | “Nobody” | “You Should Know”