Thursday, September 12, 2019

album review: 'eve' by rapsody

Yes, I'm late again - not as late as last time, but still late, and that's on me.

And yet that got me thinking: Rapsody is one of those rappers who should be discussed among terrific rappers right now, a lyricist who can bend flows with cutting bars and who has the significant production talents of 9th Wonder behind her, along with the pedigree to command respect of spitters past and present... and yet for as much as I praised Laila's Wisdom late in 2017, it wasn't a project I often felt inclined to revisit in the same way. And I can't just say it's rooted in the rush of the year-end, because Ruston Kelly dropped at the end of last year and I still play that album, so what the hell is it?

Well, after a quick relisten to Laila's Wisdom which served as a welcome reminder of its quality, I did get something of an answer: density. Rapsody stacks her bars deep, and placed against textured production and heavy subject matter, but light on melodic hooks or straightforward bangers, it means I place her in a category with other heavy-hitting lyricists from the underground that I need to be in a specific mood to hear. And let me stress that's not to denigrate her - that's an elite group, for sure, and it's also one that as I get older I revisit more, but I do feel that the next big step for Rapsody would be finding a way to transcend that barrier and group, which may come more through composition and song structure than outright bars, or a thematic core that resonated more deeply. And given the mountains of critical acclaim given to Eve - similar to what was given to Laila's Wisdom but also a little more muted than I expected - I did have high hopes for this, so what did Rapsody deliver? in my last review I made the statement that I'm not a fan of the line 'it's not for me' because I've long held the belief that for a discerning audience truly great art can transcend that demarcation. Well, that was put to the test with Eve, a project that coming off of Laila's Wisdom and some considerable expectations on my front I was hoping would kick a lot of ass... and yet I wound up feeling a little more lukewarm on it than I expected. Don't get me wrong, it's far from bad - in fact, I'd argue it's really damn good - but it feels like niggling issues I had just below the surface on the last album are more evident, and for as much as I admire the aspirational focus and how much it's intended for an audience often underserved with this style of content... I dunno, I wanted this to hit harder than it did.

And I want to start with Rapsody here and let me establish that more often than not, she's easily the most compelling part of these projects: a big personality with a lot of impressive grit, multiple flows, and a voice that commands your attention. Hell, this is a project with J. Cole, JID, and GZA on it and the only rapper that feels like she can command the atmosphere more is Queen Latifah on 'Hatshepsut', and even there it feels like it's because Rapsody is deferring to a legend. And nobody can doubt Rapsody's confidence, that much is clear, very reminiscent of a lot of Jay-Z... and that might be linked to why this album can feel like a draining listen at points. I can appreciate bravado and flair, especially given that Rapsody does vary the content to show range - we'll come back to this - but like with Jay-Z, it's a brand of swagger in her delivery that feels so self-assured that it starts running together. Even the tender moments come forcefully, and I find myself looking for emotive subtlety in her presentation that you will hear in the content, and when you pair it with the fact that Rapsody's albums always run long, you find yourself questioning when there's room to breathe. Note that I'm referring more here to tone and emotion, not cadence or flow, because Rapsody does slide into looser, more trap-adjacent flows with ease, and even if she's not one to embrace autotuned melody... but in those cases that just boils down the hustle to its bluntest possible form, and they feel like concessions to contemporary construction that Rapsody has moved past years ago, and they're not as interesting as when she embraces pure spitting or the groovy confidence that's always been a great secret weapon in her arsenal. Hell, I'd prefer to get more songs like the bouncy, g-funk adjacent 'Michelle' or the burbling soul of 'Ibtihaj' than trap-leaning cuts like 'Oprah', or the weirdly listless 'Tyra', because while Rapsody can make them work - and achieves more success with 'Whoopi' and 'Serena', especially with that hammering Luke sample - she doesn't sound like she's having as much fun.

Now as I said earlier, I understand why she's bringing this intensity and tone, especially early on with cuts like 'Cleo' where she flips the 'In The Air Tonight' sample far better than Meek Mill did to shred into an industry and predominantly male audience that's often marginalized her because of her refusal to play the game with sexual provocation or dumb things down. And as a whole Eve is her scathing refutation: an album primarily made for the empowerment and celebration of black women, centering their narrative, struggles, and stories first. And yet it's hard to escape the feeling that it's a celebration within the system's confines rather than a revolution to reshape or break the system, and that kind of curtails the revolutionary spirit the album keeps flirting with. It's part of a long-running minor issue I have with Rapsody, in that her immediate punchlines have weight and impact but they've struggle to coalesce into more, and while Laila's Wisdom transcended that by showing a multi-faceted picture of Rapsody as a woman, with the blunter aspirational focus the contradictions slide more into picture, especially around money. It reminds me of a persistent criticism in the past couple of years of Jay-Z and Beyonce's brand of flexing and capitalism - feeling all the more relevant with the public relations fiasco that has been Jay-Z's work with the NFL thus far - and while Rapsody does have a little more sneering disinterest in it, you can tell having been slighted so often does drive the desire to chase the money even harder. She'll be self-aware about how the label wants her to flex about her car on 'Sojourner'... but then do it unironically on earlier songs; she'll highlight how no matter how many millions stack up it won't save black lives from police brutality, but the hooks and messages of other songs will circle back to chasing the money. And if this album was looking to draw attention to the exhausting contradictions at the core of a black woman's experience, that'd be one thing... but I'm not sure that's what it is. It's ending the album with 'Afeni', a song celebrating and promoting tenderness towards black men and their struggle, anchored in a sampled hook from Tupac promoting respect of women... even despite his questionable legacy. More prominently, it's a song like 'Aaliyah', promoting different standards and images of black beauty... but the backing sample is not of Aaliyah, but of Sabrina Claudio, an up-and-coming R&B act who was driven out of the scene when it was exposed she ran a separate twitter account explicitly denigrating black women. And then there's 'Iman', with SiR and JID on another song celebrating black beauty with the punchline of Rapsody calling out JID for calling her a bad bitch - which could have been a good moment in cultivating respect, claiming labels for yourself, but that's not what Rapsody's doing; demanding the lipservice of respect while not really addressing his clunky, oversold verse.

And here's the frustrating thing: these contradictions serve more as distractions from a project that on other stretches are absolutely stunning. I completely understand why Rapsody interspersed Reyna Biddy's poetry all across the album and gave her an interlude, because the writing is legitimately great with some striking emotional intricacy, and when Rapsody can just flex her wordplay against great production it can be striking. I already mentioned 'Cleo', and while I found the sample flip on 'Nina' a little obvious, Rapsody's verse still shreds everything in her path. I didn't love all of her trap flips, but the stormy rumble and shouting sample of 'Serena' hits incredibly well, and gets even darker across 'Myrlie' where she highlights the lingering pain of black women seeing their spouses killed against a Bjork flip and murky beat. Hell, even if the flutes and dusty knock of 'Maya', the more lush Billy Paul flip on 'Iman', and beautiful funk touches around 'Afeni' might be obvious touchpoints for 9th Wonder, they're tones that are a great fit for Rapsody and she does great work with it, and Nottz follows suit off the glossy keys on 'Michelle', a playful moment where Rapsody handily co-opts the shoutouts on the outro and while she's aware of how ridiculous it all is, she's still having fun! And I'd be loath to ignore 'Ibtihaj', featuring D'Angelo on the hook and a really solid GZA verse - it reflects an ease and love of hip-hop culture in which Rapsody fits comfortably, and she can go toe-to-toe. But on the flip side, I'm left thinking about a song like 'Sojourner' that has great verses from both J. Cole and Rapsody, but while both are dealing with feeling like outsiders in their own industry because of things they cannot control and finding their lane to reject it, I found myself wishing that Rapsody at least attempted to match J. Cole's introspection, because we hit another tonal contradiction that strikes an odd note.

And that's honestly close to where I fall on this project: a lot of great rapping and striking production, but a slew of little contradictions that might resonate more with Rapsody's target audience but for me lead to a fractured brand of aspiration that doesn't quite come together. Of course I know it's not made for me, and Rapsody working to name and empower her icons' legacy has cultural and historical weight, but it feels a little compromised, and done at the expense of the layered humanity that made me like Rapsody's material so much on Laila's Wisdom, even if it was not a project I consistently revisited. And thus for Eve... it's a very strong 7/10, but absolutely recommended, and I feel for her target audience who respond more to this brand of aspirational hip-hop, it'll connect way more deeply. And for Rapsody... honestly, I'd just be happy if she got the success and appreciation she rightly deserves, as I'd love to see where she'd go from there.

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