Beauty and the Beast
In the thick of trap music’s supremacy, Jamla Records is a Zanarkand: a desperate and sacrificial preservation of a previous glory that’s now out of sync and out of favor.
Thing is, trap, snap, and drill are no longer insurgent movements, much as they were a decade ago. Trap is the standard sound and center of hip-hop’s gravity, with even pop musicians and network television dramas bowing to Atlanta's dominance. Quality Control and Zaytoven amount to goddamn tyranny of convergent tastes; an industrious hive mind buzzing with hi-hats that are almost as worn-out as all those “Funky Drummer” loops of yestercentury. The fast evaporation of Migos is just one early hint that trap isn’t a genre so much as a moment, and possibly a bubble: When does it burst?
When Kendrick Lamar asked Rapsody to spit a 16-plus on his divisive jazz fusion project, To Pimp a Butterfly, she upended his “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” with a cheeky fit of admittedly "conscious" rap. She’s not signed to T.D.E. or otherwise affiliated with Kendrick's clique, yet I doubt that Ab-Soul or Isaiah Rashad might have fit the bill on Butterfly as precisely as Rapsody does: She’s ambitious and imaginative, yes, but for the most part she writes realistic observations, recites words from the wise, and chants the modest optimism of a working-class striver. She's down to earth. She reveals herself only in doses of relatable confidence. No number of repeat listens to Rapsody's own Beauty and the Beast—the album version of her EP from late last year—would educate your guess as to whether Rapsody even owns a car, much less whether it’s foreign or rare.
Rapsody builds on the 10-track EP with three additional songs—"Don't Need It," "For You," and "Believe Her"—that introduce a few strong R&B hooks into the mix. Otherwise, Rapsody is more so Joell Ortiz on the mic, a stream of compounded entendres spit to the rhythm of a polygraph needle. The real drums and wooden percussion of “Godzilla,” for instance, are the big and proper infrastructure of Rapsody’s talk of God, squads, villas, killers, misters, sisters, “Jay and Nas.” “Don’t Need It,” the catchiest iteration of Rapsody’s signature defiance (“I don’t need your emo beats; all I need is soul and funk”), is Beauty’s most breathtaking feature; while Rapsody can’t claim Lauryn Hill’s knack for choruses, singer Merna supplies the requisite catchiness and lavender. “The World,” the first of Beauty’s two Lauryn Hill flips, is scrappy and adventurous: “A hunger for wisdom from the Isles.”
We know the author’s strengths before we can discern her true, specific self. On “The Man,” she illustrates one household’s poverty, honing in on a father’s spiral into emasculation and violence. Even when she’s telegraphing her stature on “Who I Am” and “Coming for You,” there’s no prevailing narrative of her own, or even a profile (her love for the Lakers and Kobe Bryant aside). She says as much on “Who I Am,” of all songs: “You don’t know me, but you know me,” which sounds like populism to me.
While there’s little myth-making, Beauty is a work of brute strength and self-determination. There’s zero capitulation to popular taste. “Forgive Me (I’m Sorry)” opens with 30 seconds of pale trap mimicry, only to make way for the live piano and drumset as foundation for words of peace for Mike Brown and a defense of priorities and craft: “Funny how the ones selling records are the ones rapping for real/Future sold a hundred; Kendrick sold a hot mill/You do the math.” Not too proud to occasionally admit that she’s jealous of Weezy’s disputed fortune, nor is she naive enough to be rapping in hope of some ludicrous payday to begin with.
As a spiritual preservation of Black Star and Rawkus Records and the like, Rapsody isn't throwback or reactionary so much as she's, let's say, classically trained. Beauty presents a rapper who is clearly capable of swimming in line with the current but would rather thrash against it. So unconcerned “with Iggy and Nicki,” Rapsody is a descendent of Mos Def and Ms. Hill, and an insurgency peer of Kendrick, J. Cole, Jay Electronica, Ana Tijoux—curious rebels and lovers with varying popular appeal but common cause in their antagonizing the values and mindset that culminated with “Versace.” Jazz and hot mic poetry aren’t new to rap, but neither is gold. What’s next?
Justin Charity is a staff writer at Complex. Follow him @brothernumpsa.