“The power of the dussy make a grown man cry,” Rapsody declares on “Power”, a track from her 2017 album Laila’s Wisdom. “The day I came up out my mama I saw a grown man cry.”
Women’s power, as a source of strength, intellect, emotion and, most importantly, life, has been a recurring theme in the North Carolina artist’s work for years. On her new album, Eve, she explores a lineage of black female icons in a way that is both tender and compelling.
Laila’s Wisdom opened with a sample of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” – it was celebratory and uplifting. Eve’s first track, “Nina”, features an eerie cut of “Strange Fruit”, perhaps forewarning a graver tone for this new work. Each song is titled after a black woman Rapsody admires: Serena Williams, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Aaliyah, Oprah Winfrey… and for each one she explores these women’s traits, successes and strife. The slick, Anderson .Paak-influenced funk jam “Oprah” celebrates self-made success (“dollahs dollahs circulate”), while “Hatshepsut”, named after the longest-reigning female pharaoh, features a superb guest feature from Queen Latifah.
It’s coincidental, and perhaps he shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as this masterpiece, that British singer-songwriter Frank Turner released his own tribute to women just a week before Rapsody’s album. But the difference in quality is staggering: where Turner’s tribute came across as clumsy and insincere, Rapsody’s makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up because she's herself part of that legacy.
That’s not to say men can’t also pay tribute, hence why Rapsody has invited fellow rappers J Cole, D’Angelo, Sir, JID, PJ Morton, K Roosevelt and GZA to make guest appearances. No one tries to jostle her for the limelight – instead they offer introspective bars from their own experience, dismantling toxic tropes of masculinity along the way. She shouts out rapper Common as an example of a true ally for women.
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The overarching sound, production and instrumentation on Eve are outstanding. Produced by Rapsody’s long-time collaborator and mentor 9th Wonder, the record samples cuts from Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” (“Whoopi”) and Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” (“Cleo”), offers a smooth R&B joint with “Aaliyah” featuring the late singer’s ghostly backing vocals, and includes an interlude that is “an ode to the black woman’s body”. As on Laila’s Wisdom, Eve conveys Rapsody’s natural feel for funk – “Michelle” (Obama) bounces in on a jaunty piano riff – but other tracks, such as closer “Afeni”, are pure soul.
Nina Simone said an artist’s duty, “as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times”. This is precisely what Rapsody has done – in the most resonant way possible.