27 October 2017

REVIEW: Rapsody - Laila's Wisdom

The squadron at BITM try not to post our reviews quickly for the sake of trending with the initial flurry of online reviews. Instead, we prefer taking LPs, EPs, and mixtapes for real day in life spins: in the whip (of course), through speakers at home, and through headphones at work and at the gym. So with about a month under my belt with Rapsody's latest and greatest, I've had time to reflect on the body of work and the overall impact it has on the current Hip Hop landscape. Rapsody's grandmother, Laila, served as the inspiration for the album which is aptly titled Laila's Wisdom. This is Rap's second LP, but first under the Roc Nation imprint. While we've been champions of the Snow Hill emcee since the jump, we are very pleased to see her stock take an exponential rise in the last couple of years. Hard work pays off, and this album that was 2 years in the making is proof of that. So without further ado, let's jump into a few tracks. 

The intro/titular track, "Laila's Wisdom", sets the tone for the rest of the album. The Nottz produced single (VA stand up!) starts with a sample of Aretha Franklin's "Young, Gifted and Black" and continues with gospel vocals over a heavy piano instrumental. [The Queen of Soul tangent: The song "Young, Gifted and Black" also served as Aretha's 1972 album title. Aretha's titular track is a strong gospel inspired song reminding young black children that no matter how hard or unfair life seems, they are "young, gifted and black". Now back to your regularly scheduled review, already in progress.]  Rapsody's intro channels her grandmother's advice and...wisdom (see what she did there?), and ends with Rap asserting her dominance in the rap game. When I tell you she RIPS the track, maaaaaaan. Lyrically this joint is a gift to geeks like me who hop on genius.com and break down the track bar for bar. Here's a quick sample: "They say we 3/5ths human, well the rest of me’s an Autobot". OK, so here Rap is referring to the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise. It stated that black slaves would count as "3/5ths" of a [white] person for representative and taxation purposes. In one bar Rapsody acknowledges part of the disgusting (and often conveniently ignored) history of America, while at the same time turning a phrase into something empowering. She is saying, "OK, you view me as 3/5th of a person. Well, the other 2/5ths of me is an more than human". Rapsody is as powerful as an Autobot, a Transformer, a machine advanced in every way, especially lyrically. This immediately reminded me of Kendrick Lamar's line from "The Blacker the Berry". In a line he said, "You're fuckin' evil I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey". The racial slur "monkey" is another way to discriminate against black men and women by saying that they are ape-like or primitive. Kendrick, like Rapsody, takes the power away from words meant to put black people down. Turning them into words of empowerment. 

The final track, "Jesus Coming", produced by 9th Wonder is a masterpiece. 9th provides a perfectly simple instrumental with a soulful loop of Otis G Johnson's vocals from the song "Time To Go Home". The track starts off with gunshots and ambulance noises, then Rap goes into three specific stories. The first is of a young man who is shot at a party, the second is of a mother and child who are shot by stray bullets, and the third of a soldier oversees who is killed in action. Rap said, "With this song I just chose three topics that I really wanted to focus on", and "But just talking about us, I really wanted to paint the picture of this is what you doing and I want you to feel this". And keeping with the theme of similarities with other great emcees, this song took me back to Scarface's "I Seen a Man Die". Both focus more on emotional descriptions vs painting the environmental picture. The details of the location are not important, instead Rapsody focuses on the internal dialogue that her characters experience with their last breaths. Her pen bleeds with emotion in every bar. Just another track that I couldn't do justice by trying to explain it. You just gotta hear it. 

The single "Power" with Kendrick Lamar is everything you want from the third meeting of these lyrically juggernauts. "Nobody" with Anderson .Paak and Black Thought is full of gems over a smooth 9th Wonder and Khrysis beat. Music Souldchild makes a surprise duet feature with Gwen Bunn on the soulful track "A Rollercoaster Jam Called Love". But right now, the joint "Black & Ugly" with BJ The Chicago Kid is my favorite track. Without going in too deep, the track is a vulnerable journey through Rapsody's personal experience being an artist that doesn't fit the "normal beauty standards" of the industry. Especially in the Hip Hop culture. This track is an anthem to girls who are beautiful, but are told the opposite by society. 

I've read comments that, with this album, Rapsody is taking her place as the female Kendrick Lamar. I agree and disagree. I agree that Rap is now on the top tier of the "new" wave of emcees (if she wasn't before, and to me she was). So that means she is on that top shelf with the Kendrick Lamars. But comparisons are tricky. They can be negative and positive. In Rap's case, for now I think there are more positives to this comparison. It was her feature on Kendrick's "To Pimp a Butterfly" that help grow her fan base to a more mainstream one. IF I am going to compare Rapsody and this project to another emcee, it would have to be to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Now hear me out. Of course Lauryn is able to add another level to her music with her duel threat of emceeing and singing. But there was one singular feeling I got while listening to Laila's Wisdom and Lauryn's album. And it has to do with a specific image I have in my head. I don't know if I'll have kids in the future, but I always had this vision of listening to Illmatic on a record player with a son. Making sure he's raised right in the context of Hip Hop. Having a daughter terrifies me (ha, that came out harsher than I meant it to be). But after listening to Rapsody's album, I could see that same vision flipped with a daughter spinning that Laila's Wisdom vinyl. The last time I had that "if I had a daughter, I would listen to this joint with her" feeling was with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I am not a woman, but I am also not blind. Being a woman, especially a woman of color, brings about innumerable hurdles and dangers. Pop culture is full of images that tell women how to look, dress and act. Whether it's a music video or the lyrics themselves, there is very little I would want my fictional daughter to emulate. Since Lauryn Hill, I haven't seen another emcee that could tell young girls, "Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem". And of course this is not an absolute statement. I know there are emcees out there that keep that message/spirit alive. But when it comes to female emcees on a major (in one way or another) and that are (or about to be) "mainstream", the pickings are slim. 

I've been going back and forth with what my final review would be. It's been pointed out that I might maybe possibly be a tad bit biased when it comes to Rapsody. Seeing how I've only given her perfect reviews (Crown and Beauty and The Beast) and how the MOST animated I've ever been during our podcasts was when I was arguing that Rapsody isn't boring (peep the greatness at 50:38). I might could maybe admit that I definitely wanted her to succeed and wanted her music to reach the masses. But I stand by my reviews. I never "gave" her a perfect review, she earned it. That being said, this is her best body of work to me. This album feels curated with care in every sense of the word. There are no weak spots to attack. It is thematically thoughtful, insightful and daring. While industry/mainstream "Hip Hop" is still riding the wave of platinum radio and club hits, we are seeing a shift in power. Kind off. This year alone we at BITM have commented that we are getting more lyrical Hip Hop albums than we were 4-5 years ago. Will there be a drastic dynamic overarching change? No. But the slow burn is being felt by Hip Hop heads and hopefully we continue to support and champion these efforts. If you haven't yet done so, start that today and scoop up that Laila's Wisdom

Peep video for "Power" and DA WHOLE DAMN ALBUM (how?) below.

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