Jamla Records, LLC

To rabid hip-hop fans, Rapsody isn't exactly a new name, but she's probably an underappreciated one. For all of the dense lyricism she showcased on projects like Return of the B-Girl, Thank H.E.R. Now and She Got Game and on collaborations with rappers like Talib Kweli and Kendrick Lamar, the Jamla Records artist has rarely been discussed as a heavyweight in the pantheon of great female rappers. This should have begun to change after she signed to JAY-Z's Roc Nation and dropped her Crown EP last year. It almost surely will in the days and weeks following the release of Laila's Wisdom, her debut on Roc Nation.

Armed with the down-home sincerity of a North Carolina girl from around the way, the deft penmanship of a rap classicist and the wisdom of her grandmother, Rapsody presents a soulful swirl of jazz and funk-infused hip-hop to render the complex existence of the everywoman—a Black one—in triumphant, and sometimes painful detail. The end result is Laila’s Wisdom, one of the best LP’s of 2017 and a reminder that the Jamla/Roc Nation artist belongs in any discussion about the rap game’s best lyricists.

Appropriately enough, a sample from the immortal Aretha Franklin's "(To Be) Young Gifted and Black" begins the project with an urgent church piano on the inspirational, Nottz-produced titular track, “Laila’s Wisdom.” Acting as a sort of album mission statement, the song finds the Snow Hill, N.C. native reiterating her grandmother’s time-tested advice in a tight verse brimming with a spirit of perseverance and self-determination, two traits that powered her journey to underground queen status. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon' fear you/Sky’s the limit see, I told you/You gon' be the difference between McDonald’s, Burger King and Whole Foods,” she spits on a song that sounds like both a call to action and a promise fulfilled.

With myriad jazz and funk samples and themes of Afrocentrism, Laila's Wisdom, which is produced in large part by 9th Wonder's Soul Council, is sure to earn comparisons to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that actually includes a Rapsody feature (“Complexion (A Zulu Love)”). While there are definite similarities, the underground stalwart's latest effort is something all her own. Whereas TPAB relied on the strength of stream-of-conscious meditations and violent rhyme schemes, Laila’s Wisdom employs a gentler, more conversational approach, using grace rather than blunt force. For the record, both approaches are, when used to their fullest effect, pretty incredible, and they shine through on “Power,” a track that finds Rapsody and K. Dot linking up once again.

Leading things off, Rapsody flaunts her typically impressive wordplay as she examines the perception and reality of power, before ultimately explaining the need to recognize your own. “Power up with the word/I got it from my God/He said a good shepherd don’t trip over what they heard," she spits over 9th track, which samples Bootsy’s Rubberband’s “May the Force Be With You.” K. Dot, meanwhile, explores the dimensions of power in one of his most technically impressive verses in 2017.

As a whole, Laila’s Wisdom is a seamlessly human mix of self-assurance and vulnerability, as Rapsody makes Black womanhood sound invincible one moment and tragically mortal the next. On the Maya Angelou-inspired “Sassy,” she’s a proud Black woman with diamonds between her knees and oil wells in her thighs. On the bluesy, BJ the Chicago Kid-assisted “Black & Ugly,” she’s wounded by unattainable Eurocentric standards of beauty. As is often the case on the album, though, she finds her way through with her wits and a strong sense of self.

Piercing introspection abounds on Laila's Wisdom, but on tracks like "Ridin" and "Jesus Coming," she aims her high-powered perceptual lens at her family, Snow Hill and the Black community abroad. On the former track, she focuses on "that somebody in our family that we can't save from hell," a potentially battered woman whose infatuation with their community and its small-time thrills have rendered her unable to imagine life outside of it. On "Jesus Coming," Rapsody addresses different types of death with striking imagery and a deeply humanizing sensitivity. This one includes the tale of a mother losing her young daughter over gang violence—or in her own poignant words, "the colors she would color with."

Rapsody continues to ponder and reflect on "Nobody," a jazzy, Anderson .Paak-assisted number that sounds a lot like a less skeptical version of Jadakiss' "Why." The difference is, Rapsody's earnestness makes it sound like she actually doesn't believe she knows the answers to the questions she's asking, a charming touch that adds to her engagingly down-home approach to lyricism. She again emits convincing, real-time confusion on "U Used 2 Love Me," where she encapsulates an entire cycle of dissolving love within a matter of just a few bars.

While it's hard to pinpoint a track on Laila's Wisdom that is anthemic enough to be a dominant single, the project is a smooth, cohesive and powerfully insightful effort, which represents Rapsody's steadfast commitment to her craft. Just a bit more powerful than she is fearful and as casually earnest as she is poignant, Rapsody renders humanity with rare nuance as she presents an album that should establish her as one of the more treasured voices in hip-hop.

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