Laila's Wisdom was one of the best albums of 2017. The hip hop record by Rapsody, a 35-year-old rapper from North Carolina, barely appeared in the traditional end of year album roundups in the UK or the US, despite receiving critical acclaim from those who did listen, and a Grammy nomination at the 2018 ceremony for Best Rap Album.
The artist born Marlanna Evans is a 10-year veteran of hip hop who came to prominence "the old-fashioned way" - starting out with the North Carolina collective Kooley High, on producer 9th Wonder's 2007 compilation The Dream Merchant Vol. 2, going on to release a string of releases helmed by 9th, including three EPs, four mixtapes, a wealth of guest appearances and her debut studio album The Idea of Beautiful.
Her sharp, swift flow and talent for wordplay led to a breakthrough feature on Kendrick Lamar's incendiary album To Pimp A Butterfly - arguably the best feature on that record - and went onto sign to Jay-Z's label Roc Nation in 2016, releasing Laila's Wisdom in September the next year.
2016 was stacked with full-length rap releases, from Kendrick's DAMN. to Jay-Z's 4:44 and Flower Boy by Tyler, the Creator. But it was Laila's Wisdom that stood out among those Grammy nominees; hip hop at its best and most refined, with heady beats that switched between old-school, classic hip hop and more of a funk-driven vibe;' deft lyrics, coherent themes, and a beautiful, energetic dynamic running right through it.
Perched on a sofa in the corner of a photography studio in east London, ahead of a show at the Jazz Cafe, we speak in half-whispers to avoid our conversation echoing around the large space. She beams at the mention of her Grammy nomination: "Oh... what?!"
"That was an amazing start to the year," she says. "I don’t even know how to put it into words - I was just excited to be nominated. We won just to be there. It felt good opening the year like that, and even Grammy week was dope. I’m not the most popular artist, I’m not the biggest celebrity, so the fact I was recognised felt good. To inspire other people on the same path as me.
"When we did it (Laila's Wisdom) I knew it was a dope project but I know how the business works so I thought it was gonna get overlooked - it was gonna be a slow burn, so I didn’t go into it with any big expectations... although I was very proud of it.
"For me, this is the longest I’ve ever worked on a prject. Some ones we did in like two years, albums we’d spend like three months. But for this one I really wanted to challenge myself, try new things, play with my voice. I really wanted it to be a moment. 80 songs later we were knocking it down, bringing Terrace (Martin) into the fold to make the music bigger."
Working with 9th again, Rapsody knew her album would continue hip hop's tradition of bridging a gap between the old and the new. Older artists live on because new generations sample their music: "It was important to keep that going," she nods, "and because I grew up on soul - my dad loved Luther Vandross, my mum liked Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle - it reminds me of my youth, so I wanted to put that in the music."
Laila's Wisdom is named in honour of her paternal grandmother, Laila, who said the phrase "give me my flowers while I can still smell them" - her expression of gratitude when her granddaughter came to visit. And the album, both in its production and in her words, is about holding onto the knowledge passed down to you by your elders and then passing it on again: exploring those eternal themes of love, confidence, and power - about how a person can give power to themselves, rather than wait for someone else to.
"Power given to yourself is what’s valuable, what matters," she says. "I spent too much of my time and career focusing on chasing power from other people. And you don’t need it. Your music speaks for you and how you feel. I know where I am, I know what I mean to people.
"We give power to these bloggers, these trophies - which are nice to have but at the same time they don’t define you. They can’t define your career, your life achievement. It’s all about the way you make people feel, and the confidence you have in yourself, and that’s where our real power comes from."
True as that is, she agrees that there was still a crushing sense of disappointment when Kendrick was snubbed for the third time - for Album and Artist of the Year - at the 2018 Grammys.
"That one hurt. He’s been stiff-armed three times," Rapsody says. "Even Jay Z didn’t win a single award. It’s crazy. But as we know, they don’t understand our culture, they don’t understand hip hop. The Grammys is for everybody to vote on, and everybody doesn’t live in hip hop or understand it, that’s what I had to realise. You want those artists to be represented, but when they’re not… you can’t let it take anything away from you.
"They feel it. They see it. They can’t not," she says at the suggestion the industry is all-too aware of how artists are taking more control over their work. "All of the power is with the artist now, you don’t necessarily need a label (not to say they don’t help, I’m happy with my situation) but you can do it by yourself, have direct contact with your fanbase, make videos with an iPhone. You don’t need a $10m dollar budget to create art. And that can only be better for the music and the culture."
When she signed a record deal, the one thing she wouldn't compromise on was her creative control, which is why, she says. it took a while to work things out.
"Partnering with Roc Nation was the best thing we could have done," she says. "Def Jam has been really supportive, but then that’s the culture Jay Z has created. We walked in with the album 90 per cent done and they were just like ‘we love it’. They’re not the type of label to want you to change things for radio or whatever. It was like... ‘Tell us how we can help.'"
She blinks when she hears how Kendrick posted her album artwork as his profile around its release last year - something he also did to celebrate SZA's album CTRL - which he also featured on.
"Oh wow, I’m tripping, I missed that!" she says laughing. "But I’m not surprised, that’s who he is - the celebrity hasn’t changed him. He’s the biggest thing in music right now, but he’s still humble, and a great leader who wants to bring others with him. And you can’t ask for anything better from a person."
She makes music like a director would a movie, she says, where “everybody is featured like their own character, but they’re part of the story.
“That’s what I wanted it to be like, an event, and we were piecing it together to have an intro, a climax…” she continues. “I’m a big suspense thriller fan, trying to piece the story, figuring out what the twist is. I kind of model my writing after that. I’m not always a punchline rapper - sometimes my lines connect so you have that lightbulb moment. In the film it’s like, I thought you was the killer but it’s the other guy!”
Laila's Wisdom featured a wealth of talent, from Kendrick but also artists including Anderson .Paak, Busta Rhymes, Black Thought, Amber Navran and Terrace Martin: before its release in September, Busta Rhymes announced it was “the best album... from top to bottom in its entirety that I've probably [heard] in the last 10 years”.
"There were some good ones," Rapsody acknowledges modestly. "All of them were special. I think creating 'Nobody' (ft. Anderson .Paak, Moonchild and Black Thought) was really fun. The song was mostly done, I had two verses on it and no hook. And Anderson just started humming. I was like, man, you got something? You’re more than welcome, go for it. So he just went in the booth and kicked it, and it worked so well.
"The fun part is doing that, watching that process going down, and then the producing of it. Anderson sung it in one long bit and we split it up, then Terrace [Martin] plays over it and sends it back, and this is before Black Thought got on it. The song ended and Anderson kept playing, and it was such a funky joint we thought ‘oh that’s another piece!’ let’s make that the introduction for Black Thought."
'Jesus Coming' came about right near the end of the album's production when 9th Wonder showed Rapsody a beat - by that point there were 18 tracks that would later be narrowed down to 14. But Rapsody knew she had to have it.
"He (9th) called Amber Navran, I said 'man, this is what the song makes me feel'. I thought about homeless people and how in society they’re invisible to us. That’s a big thing for me. I watch people walk by like they don’t even matter. So Amber came back and played the hook for me. Her voice is crazy. Then she had this other part that was muted, I was like ‘what is that? Let me hear it’. And it was what we ended up using for the bridge, which is my favourite part - the inflection and the rise and fall in her voice creates the motion, it’s like-" she throws her hands up, grinning "-aaahh! It came out perfectly."
Laila's Wisdom, the album by Rapsody, is out now via Roc Nation