Reviewed by Naima Warsame
“Culture over everything,” is the mantra of North Carolina MC, Rapsody. Her second EP, Beauty and the Beast, appeals to the sensibilities of hip-hop purists disgruntled with the trap-dominated mainstream rap scene. The EP features production by 9th Wonder and his production team The Soul Council, who create a sonic atmosphere reminiscent of the golden age of hip-hop.
For those unfamiliar with Rapsody’s lyrical prowess, the lead track of the EP, “Feel It,” is a perfect introduction. It is one of many tracks where Rapsody employs a familiar style of braggadocio rap. On “Godzilla,” she proudly proclaims, “Jay Hova and Christ, only ones iller than me, alright.” This EP is not short on bars and Rapsody isn’t afraid to remind you of that fact.
Aside from rapping about how well she raps, one of the major themes of the EP is artistic integrity. Rapsody’s lead single “Hard to Choose” details her internal struggle with staying true to her artistic roots despite the allure of money and fame. Rapsody laments about the pressure to simplify her lyrics and make easily digestible hits. Like many “conscious” rappers before her, she feels as though lyricism is the cornerstone of hip-hop culture.
On “Hard to Choose” and “Forgive Me, I’m Sorry,” Rapsody veers into respectability politics territory with her criticism of other female rappers embracing their sexuality. Rapsody proudly proclaims, “I’m sorry my respect level got nothing to do with Vogue,” and “sorry, I’m so classy.” It seems Rapsody, in her attempt to preserve hip-hop culture, is bringing along with her the age-old sexist trope that one must be “classy” and modest to be taken seriously as an artist. Other female rappers, such as Jean Grae and Angel Haze, similarly reiterate the same sexist motifs used by their male counterparts as a way to separate themselves from more sexualized female artists. This trend is a direct byproduct of the historically male-dominated atmosphere of hip-hop culture. Though it’s hard to choose between culture and fame, Rapsody doesn’t have to choose between embracing her sexuality and providing quality lyrical content. In today’s hip-hop world, there seems to be a strict divide between female MCs who embrace their sexuality and femininity and those who eschew it completely.
A lyrical technician, Rapsody is often compared to fellow “conscious” rapper, Kendrick Lamar. She was even featured on the provocative (and to some controversial) track “Complexion” off Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly LP. However, unlike Lamar, Rapsody’s only foray into storytelling on this EP occurs on the track, “The Man.” The song tells the tale of a young boy who becomes the man of the household after his father leaves the family. Though the lyrics are touching, without an expressed personal connection the track does not achieve the depth of songs like Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
On this EP, Rapsody’s speaks to her core audience, which is predominantly made up of hip-hop purists or “lyrical accountants.” It’s likely that such listeners will enjoy tallying up Rapsody’s ardent use of figurative language, but this brand of “conscious” rap is steadily becoming obsolete. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Chance the Rapper are able to showcase their lyrical acumen, while still providing entertaining rap music. As Jay-Z mentioned in his book Decoded, “there is a difference between being a great technician and a great songwriter.” In essence, great songwriters aren’t afraid to kill their dazzling lyrical darlings to provide a better song, while technicians emphasize wordplay (to the song’s detriment at times).
The EP sounds vaguely familiar with each track feeling like a B-side to a mid-90s album. It seems Rapsody’s style of cultural preservation relies heavily on themes traversed by her rap ancestors. Unfortunately, her artistic contribution to the hip-hop culture comes off more as pastiche than homage. The glaring lack of original and thought-provoking content on Beauty and the Beast is disappointing given Rapsody’s advance technical skills.
The Soul Council’s musical production adds to the overall pastiche feel of the EP. Though the quality of the production is superb, the sonic atmosphere feels dated as it relies on heavy soul-sampling and not much else. The music comes off as mainly bland and forgettable, which is ironic considering how many times Rapsody mentions choosing to make quality music over chasing fame. This brings us back to Rapsody’s mantra of “culture over everything.” Since its foundation, hip-hop culture has been evolving and adapting to the times, so curtailing evolution in an effort to preserve “culture” only does the culture a disservice.
Overall, Rapsody’s second EP, Beauty and the Beast, feels like more of an audition than a concerted artistic endeavor. Rapsody is a skilled MC and shows a lot of potential, so let’s hope her full-length debut offers up more storytelling and unique perspectives. As for all the boastful lyrics on the EP, Rapsody would do well to adhere to the literary maxim “show, don’t tell.”
NAIMA WARSAME is a writer based in Los Angeles, California.