NEW YORK — The debate over who reigns supreme as the greatest rapper of the moment is never-ending and never settled. From LL Cool J vs Kool Moe Dee, Tupac vs. Biggie, Jay-Z vs. Nas, it’s a time-honoured discussion that’s likely to be heard in any barbershop or boardroom where rap fans converge.
These days, while the names thrown out tend to be Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, the rap matrix is trying to sort out an unexpected entry: Rapsody. The witty, sharp-tonged MC may not only be the best female rapper, but the best lyricist in the entire genre — a compliment few women have garnered despite the genre being decades old.
“I’m honoured by it because I earned it. I worked hard for it,” said Rapsody, born Marlanna Evans, of the recognition.
“I never looked at it like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be the best female rapper ever.’ No, I want to be one of the best_if not the best_ever. People are going to have their preferences, but I know I’m in the conversation. Some, I’ll be their favourite. Some, I might be the third favourite_but I know I’m in the top five,” she laughed.
It’s a rare declaration from the seemingly reserved recording artist. “Rap,” as colleagues refer to her, recently dropped her highly anticipated album “Eve,” a follow-up to 2017’s critically acclaimed “Laila’s Wisdom.” That breakthrough album earned her two Grammy nominations including best rap album, which had her competing with Lamar, Jay-Z, Migos and Tyler the Creator.
9th Wonder, founder of Jamala, Rapsody’s music label, isn’t surprised she’s finally getting her due.
“The crazy thing about competition is you’re running a race but sometimes people have a tendency to do like this (looks left and right) and look at everybody else’s lane instead of making your lane … and widening your lane as much as you possibly can. And she’s mastered that art of doing that,” he said. “And so doing that for so long and so consistently, that’s going to just turn into her outrunning everybody.”
The North Carolina-born MC is hardly the first great female emcee; There was MC Lyte, Lil Kim, rapper/songstress Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj, as well as Queen Latifah, who provided a rare guest rap verse for this new project. But they all faced the same struggle_a fight for respect in this male-dominated music genre, though things are improving: Cardi B became the first woman to win a Grammy for best rap album earlier this year.
Rapsody’s latest project, which includes features from J. Cole, D’Angelo, Wu-Tang Clan member GZA and more, consists of 16 tracks, each named after black women_most real, some fictional_that were influential to her. For instance, there’s “Michelle” (for the former First Lady), “Oprah,” ”Myrlie” (wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers), “Cleo” (named after one of the main characters from the “Set It off” film), and “Afeni,” whose son was the legendary rapper Tupac Shakur.
“I wanted to show the spectrum of what black women are and the beauty. But also in naming them, I wanted to continue the legacies of some of these names,” she said. “And just to show our beauty and our brilliance, and to remind little girls or to introduce them to the fact you are a queen, but you can still have fun within that.”
Though no song on this album was named after Hill, Rapsody cites her as one of her most important influences.
“She just represented at that time her truth and honesty in the music that she told. She was just different from everything that came out at that time, and her artistry shined through,” Rapsody said. “It just inspired me to want to be more, to hold my head high.”
Rapsody not only stands out because of her lyricism, but her look. Unlike her female contemporaries, she doesn’t go for the glamorous, sexpot look. That has led some to use her as an example to chastise women who promote their sexuality in rap. But Rapsody, who says she is a huge Cardi B fan, doesn’t co-sign that logic.
“I was raised in a village of strong black women. And my mom, my aunts and my sisters, what they taught me early on is how to be and be part of a sisterhood,” said Rapsody. “I knew that in order for me to shine, I didn’t have to dim anybody else’s light because there’s room for us all.”
Although she’s been in the rap game for more than a decade, part of her new visibility is due to Jamala’s partnership with Roc Nation, the management and consulting group founded by Jay-Z.
“Roc Nation has helped us reached the ‘tier-three,’ ‘tier-four’ people who music for them sometimes is an afterthought,” said 9th Wonder. “They’re so instrumental cultural-wise, it’s like a great gateway for us.”
Jay-Z’s recent decision to partner with the National Football League has drawn backlash from critics who claim he turned his back on Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who Jay-Z has called an icon. Kaepernick sparked a nationwide debate after he began kneeling on the sidelines as a form of protest against racial injustice and has not been signed to a team in two years.
But Rapsody thinks the partnership could be fruitful because “we need our Colin Kaepernicks to do what they do, but we need our Jay-Zs to do what they do, too.” Shortly after this interview, Rapsody was named an NFL “Inspire Change advocate” along with Meek Mill and Meghan Trainor.
Like many of today’s lyricists, she grew up under the audio tutelage of Jay-Z, but she doesn’t seek out advice from her larger-than-life associate, saying the lyrics in his catalogue provide all the counsel she needs. When they talk, it’s about sports, or it’s “just jokes and laughs, and he sends emails and just tells us how proud he is of the work we’re doing.”
While “Eve” has the hip-hop world buzzing, Rapsody is already beginning to look down the line. She’s interested in community work, particularly with children’s literacy. But she also plans to produce documentaries, and even pursue acting.
And as far as the debate of who’s currently the greatest rapper, what’s Rapsody’s take?
“Who’s the greatest active emcee in the game right now? I’m gonna say me,” she said softly, but confidently. And with a slight smile, she added, “But I respect my brothers.”
Follow AP entertainment journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at twitter.com/garyghamilton
Gary Gerard Hamilton, The Associated Press