Interview: Rapsody On Embracing Aaliyah’s “Tomboy Femininity” For New “EVE” Album

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Writer and poet L. Lamar Wilson headed to Rapsody’s hometown of Snow Hill, North Carolina for an interview with the Grammy Award-nominated wordsmith last year. As they were driving around the small southern town, Wilson told the 36-year-old she was an “extension” of legendary North Carolina icons Nina Simone and Roberta Flack — and a lightbulb went off.

Although she didn’t initially understand what Wilson meant, she eventually realized she embodied many of Nina and Roberta’s attributes, and the idea for the EVE LP was born.

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Rapsody’s second album for Roc Nation, which arrives on Friday (August 23), highlights 15 strong black women who have influenced her in some way. From the “tomboy femininity” she admires in Aaliyah to the potent poetry of Maya Angelou, EVE truly captures who Rapsody is through the lens of some of her heroes.

During a recent conversation with HipHopDX, Rap — as she’s known to friends and family — admits it wasn’t exactly easy to whittle the list down to just 15 women. In fact, she originally had 40 different songs named after 40 different women, so she wound up leaving 25 finished tracks on the cutting room floor (at least for now).

As EVE inches closer to its release, Rapsody is busy doing press rounds and found the time to discuss the album, the magic of Lauryn Hill and why balance in Hip Hop is so crucial.

HipHopDX: What you represent to me as a woman in Hip Hop is hope. When I hear your music and what I see you present to the world, it makes me proud to be a woman in this space. 

Rapsody: Thank you so much. I’m just trying to do my part. That makes me feel good. Thank you, child.

HipHopDX: I’ve listened to the new album four or five times already and to say I’m impressed would be an understatement. I want to talk about “AALIYAH” because I love how you rap about “tomboy femininity.” Why did you feel like that was an important song to include?

Rapsody: For me, especially in a time when we see music before we hear it, a lot of people judge us on our image and our appearance. [I want] to redefine what sexy is. People think because I’m a tomboy and I’m fully clothed, that that’s not sexy. But there’s a tomboy sexiness in that. I grew up in a time where Aaliyah was the biggest thing out and one of the sexiest things out. She wore baggy jeans. She wore big, oversized jackets. She was that tomboy femininity. So, I wanted to just talk about, you know, ‘Don’t forget this image that you see, don’t think that’s the only image.’

Being a woman and what’s sexy comes in all different forms, and it looks different in many different ways. There’s nothing wrong with showing your body, but there’s nothing wrong with being a tomboy either. There’s sexiness in that, too. To me, the best and most creative way that I could do it was to do it through Aaliyah. So, that’s why I chose her. She was one of my inspirations. 

HipHopDX: For a long time, woman have had this pressure to be some kind of sex symbol and it’s just not sustainable. We all get older.

Rapsody: Gravity takes its course. You ain’t never lie [laughs].

HipHopDX: On “CLEO,” you talked about how women are being “raped” and enslaved in other ways — like being expected to show skin on television shows, in music videos, ads, etc. I’m so glad you’re bringing that to light and using your platform to get that message across. Do you feel that it’s important to show young women that there are other types of role models out there?

Rapsody: Definitely. Representation matters and balance is the most important thing. You know, this is not about me coming down on anybody for how they choose to share their art or their image. It’s about letting people know that there’s balance and women are not model thin. We all don’t have to look alike, dress alike, sound alike, talk about the same things and have the same attitude. We all can be respected and appreciated for just being individuals. So, you know, we have to be what the world really looks like and the world is different. Women in the world are different.

So, yeah, it’s important to me to talk about balance and to talk about all the different sides and aspects of what being a black female, or just females in general, on a broader scale looks like. You know, because there are younger people looking up to us and who may not have somebody in their homes to teach them. The next place they look to are the artists and whether you want the responsibility or not, the responsibility comes with it.

To have balance in what you do, that was what I loved about even like Tupac. Tupac could make a “bang-bang, shoot ‘em up” song, but he can also make a keep your hands off your mama song. I just think it’s important to have representation in all forms and show that it’s really a spectrum, you know what I mean? We are all spectrums.

HipHopDX: Speaking of Tupac, I noticed he pops up throughout the record and obviously it ends with a song about his mother Afeni Shakur, which is such a powerful way to end the album. I like the part where you say, “We ain’t your hoes or your bitches.” Tupac had some misogyny in his work, so how do you juggle those two things in your mind?

Rapsody: That he’s human, you know? And as an artist, all you can do is talk about your experiences and the life that you’ve lived. He’s not perfect. I don’t expect him to be perfect, but what I appreciate is he was honest, he was truthful and he tried. For every song that talks about women in a light that we may not favor, there was another song that reminded you of who raised him. That’s why it’s important to showcase Afeni, his mother, to showcase who kind of made Tupac, who he was, why he was so outspoken, why he was so brave and why he could make a song like “Keep Your Head Up” because he was raised by a strong, black woman.

She struggled in her own right and she wasn’t perfect. None of us are perfect, you know? But it’s just important to show that we are human and that the best thing that we can do is listen to each other and try and respect each other in the best way that we can. That’s what it is. That’s why I wanted to really showcase Afeni, and it’s not so much about Tupac, but Tupac is a part of it because Tupac was the man he was because of the woman who raised him.

HipHopDX: Absolutely. And, of course, her story is so powerful, too. She had to overcome a lot. That was a well deserved placement on your record. I was reading an interview you did with NPR, and you said you had an epiphany where you suddenly realized you were an “extension” of every black woman and that’s what kind of what sparked this whole concept album, is that correct?

Rapsody: Yeah, definitely. The guy who interviewed me, we were riding around listening to Nina Simone and Roberta Flack, and he was the one that said, “You’re an extension. You come from a direct lineage. You come from Nina Simone and Roberta Flack.” I’m thinking, “Bro, what are you talking about? How?” But it dawned on me what he meant, and that just took me into a wormhole of crazy ideas just thinking about what I drew from a bunch of different, phenomenal black women, so that was the beginning of it.

HipHopDX: Was “NINA” the first song you wrote for the album? 

Rapsody: “AALIYAH” was the first one.

HipHopDX: Was it pretty easy to come up with that list, or was it like, “Oh my god, this is really hard to pick just 15 women?”

Rapsody: Oh, it was hard to narrow it down for the album. I recorded probably about 40 songs about 40 different women. I knew I wanted to start off with “NINA.” That was the perfect intro. I knew I wanted to keep “AFENI,” and then it was just plug and play. What are the best songs that we had? I know I’m in love with the concepts and the names of these songs, but what are the best songs that we have that compliment the sound that we’re going with?

I released “PHYLICIA” for Mother’s Day and I love that song, and I really wanted it to be a part of the project, but it didn’t fit the sound that we had built. At one point, I was just like, “Man, maybe I could do EVE Part I and EVE Part II, so this sounds this way and I can come back with another one that the sound is not as experimental, but I can fit all of these other women. I have songs in the can — like I have a “SPINDERELLA” song. I have “PHYLICIA,” which is out. I have one for Eartha Kitt, I have a Maxine Waters and I have Keisha from Belly. But we decided just to do this one.

HipHopDX: Ok, no EVE Part II but maybe something like, ADAM [laughs].

Rapsody: I could, you know.

HipHopDX: That would be interesting. I was also really intrigued by “MAYA.” I really love that you used Erykah Badu’s “Green Eyes” for the song. Does 9th [Wonder] already have the music and then you just write to it?

Rapsody: That worked in different ways. 9th had already flipped that beat and so I had it in my stash in my box of things. He’d text it to me like, “Yo, here’s one,” and I’d just put it in my playlist of, ‘OK, I’m going to write to this. This is one of the ones that I write to.’ The same with Eric G. He would send me four or five beats a day and I would just find the one that just moved me at that time. And then there’d be sometimes where like with “AFENI,” I’d called Eric G and be like, “G, I’ve been wanting to do this forever and I think now’s the perfect time. ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ is one of my favorite songs. Could you take this part of the song and make a beat and put Tupac in it?’

So, it just worked in different ways. Sometimes, we had those conversations. Sometimes, I’d be like, I want a song about … let me think, like “MICHELLE” for instance. I was like, “Man, I want to do something that feels like Groove Theory [singing].” So I hit 9th and was like, “9th, do you have anything that feels like that? Because I want Michelle being captured, the Michelle Obama who likes to dance that I see at Chicago house parties. I want something that feels like that.’

We’d just played around with different things. Sometimes they would just send me beats, sometimes they would have ideas, sometimes I would have ideas. There are no rules for us when we make music. It’s like we just throw paint at the wall from all directions.

HipHopDX: The Fugees were one of my favorite groups back in the day. I grew up on them. What about Lauryn Hill makes her your greatest influence?

Rapsody: I think just what she represented for me at the time. She reminded me more of myself than any other artist that I could think of because she had that tomboy side, but she did have that sexy, feminine side where she would present herself in the most classy way and that’s how I looked at myself. Like, I was never too much one or the other. I loved that she was so raw in her rhymes, too. I loved that she was lyrical. I love her words, and I love her metaphors.

I also love the honesty in her music and the truth that she spoke of. And it was just a love for the culture that I saw in her that I just resonated with. It was just different. She was just somebody that I connected with. Again, when I looked at her, I saw myself. I saw like, “Yo, that’s what I want to embody as a person — not just in music but as a person. So, you know, that’s what it was. She was human and she wasn’t afraid to be human. The first time I heard “Zion,” I was like, “Man, this is so powerful and naked at the same time.”

HipHopDX: Did you look at her and think, “Yeah, I could do that.” Did that make you kind of want to pursue it even more?

Rapsody: Definitely. I said I at least want to try to do that. I always thought I could do the best I can, but I can’t do what Lauryn does. To be able to sing and rap and produce, she’s just brilliant. You know, there’ll only be one Lauryn. I used to say prayers like, “Dang, I wish I could sing so I could get down like Lauryn. But, I’m thankful for the gift that I’m …

HipHopDX: But you did! You sang, “Trying to catch a wave [singing].”

Rapsody: [Laughs] That was like … that was so off pitch. It was the most beautiful accident. It’s crazy. I’m so surprised he left that in.

HipHopDX: I thought that was so cool! I’ll sing along [laughs].

Rapsody: [Laughs] Thank you.

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HipHopDX: You have this album coming out. Here you are signed to Roc Nation, you’re Grammy nominated. What’s next for Rapsody?

Rapsody: Man, the possibilities are endless. I would just say, “To be continued.” That’s all I got to say right now. There’s even more to come. Definitely going to tour this album. When we’re done with this wave, we’re just ready to get on the next one, so “to be continued.”

HipHopDX: In a way it’s like you’re just getting started. You’re still young. We’ve got decades, girl [laughs].

Rapsody: [Laughs] Put it on me, put it on me.

HipHopDX: Congratulations on the new album and may you have lots of continued success.

Rapsody: Thank you. I wish the same for you and happy to have you with the DX family. I love them so it’s good to connect with people.

Source: Hip Hop DX