The student lounge was so full, hot and sticky that condensation streamed down the long windows.
In 2004, at N.C. State's Bragaw Residence Hall, H2O—a crafty acronym for the "Hip-Hop Organization"—presented a series of cyphers, dance parties and charity events in a humdrum dormitory lounge. Rapsody, a young accounting major from a farm town in eastern North Carolina, and her friend, the rapper Charlie Smarts, formed the club to generate more hip-hop hubbub on campus.
When Rapsody arrived in Raleigh three years earlier, the place's lack of rap discouraged her. Friends and relatives had told her the city was alive with beats and rhymes. It was there, she heard, but someone had to convince the rappers and producers to come back to campus. That night, they did.
At that debut battle, Median, a rising star from area collective The Justus League, freestyled. A young producer named Foolery encouraged his mentor, the producer 9th Wonder, to attend as a judge, too. 9th Wonder's group, Little Brother, had shot to sudden hip-hop fame. To the students, including Rapsody, he was rap royalty.
"People walked by and could see us performing. It would be two, and then it would be 10. We'd have a nice little crowd," Rapsody says. She wasn't even rapping, just facilitating. "Then it was wall-to-wall people, people standing on the windowsill. That's the rush I got."
This weekend, Rapsody will try to bring that feeling back to N.C. State. Alongside 9th Wonder, who has since won a Grammy and served as a Harvard fellow, she will headline N.C. State's back-to-school block party, Packapalooza, as a rapper, not an organizer.
Rapsody's cautious nature led to her late entrance as an emcee—and likely, much of her success, too. But after 10 years in the tumbler, she's helping to reimagine what it means to be a woman in hip-hop. She embraces the term "role model," using it as a litmus test for which projects she participates in and how she presents herself. Just don't call her a female rapper.
"I hate that term. It divides us," Rapsody explains. "Used to be, you can make music, but when it comes time to talk about Top 10 emcees, that's male territory. A couple years later, and you can't say I'm a female rapper. Everybody's just an emcee. Not everybody can take that pressure, or that path to get the respect you deserve. It's been terribly hard."
Rapsody has stuck with it, and the respect is starting to show. Her spot on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly was hard to miss, as the only other rap feature belonged to Snoop Dogg, who barely rapped at all. Interview requests from major outlets like MTV, XXL, NME and Spin poured in. Everybody wanted to know who she was, where she came from and how she landed on one of the biggest hip-hop releases of 2015.
But rather than aim for instant fame, Rapsody used her verse on Lamar's "Complexion (A Zulu Love)"—her biggest step toward the spotlight to date—to reinforce her role-model image. A reference to being comfortable in one's own skin, no matter the color, the title reminded Rapsody of a time she took her 5-year-old niece shopping for dolls.
"I was like, 'Why don't you want the black Barbie?' And she's like, 'That's ugly,'" Rapsody remembers. "As a child, that's all that you see: White is beautiful, black is ugly. White is angels, black is bad or demonic. You don't want them to lose their innocence that young and not think that they're beautiful."
Rapsody's 7-year-old nephew recently called her to say he'd memorized her verse.
"I know what that's going to do for him," she says. "That's going to make him love himself. And he's lighter than his sister, so he won't pick on her because she's dark-skinned."
She laughs and says, "That's what feeds me."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
A decade after that first battle, it's still difficult to distinguish Rapsody from the students who stream through N.C. State's campus during exam week. The 32-year-old is soft-spoken and casual in a T-shirt and ripped jeans, her hair pulled back in a twisted gold headband.
She jostles through the crowds in Hunt Library and points out her favorite features: the game room, a bright yellow stack of "Google stairs," the way the walls respond to touch. She moves toward a set of recording studios on the second floor.
"When me and Sinopsis from Kooley High saw these, we just gave each other the look, like, 'Daaaamn,'" she says, peering into a booth. "When we were in college, we struggled. Now it's all here, in the library. That's nuts, right?"
Before she was Rapsody, she was Marlanna Evans, a young woman from the small town of Snow Hill. She was raised a Jehovah's Witness in an enormous extended family. The town of 1,500 didn't have a record store, so music access was supplemented by whatever CDs she could swipe from her cousins' cars. Wide-eyed, she'd listen to her college-age relatives spin tales of a Raleigh club called Plum Crazy and energetic rap battles at N.C. State. With all of their accompanying ebullience and grit, cities represented enchanting foreign territories.
Still, when Rapsody landed in Raleigh in 2001, she wasn't equipped to handle the change. Back home, she had been prom queen and class president, but her contemplative manner didn't immediately mesh with the chaos of first-year dorms. She stayed on campus one week before moving in with her sister.
What's more, the clubs she'd heard so much about were closed, and the university-sponsored homecoming shows featured only country acts. That initial fear and disappointment soon motivated her to engage with campus life, to work to find hip-hop's place within it. She began to study rappers like Mos Def, Common and members of the area Justus League, all new to her.
"Everybody was like, 'You don't know Little Brother?' Snow Hill, man," she says, her face lighting up. "I would go to rap battles and just be like, 'Wow.' Anywhere there was hip-hop, that's where I was at. Musically, my God, I was a sponge."
But it took gentle encouragement from Smarts, her H2O co-organizer, before Rapsody would step up to the mic. She was comfortable hosting the events, not rapping at them.
"Snow Hill is not like New York, where you know a lot of people who have made a successful career in the arts," Rapsody explains. "Your parents are like doctor, lawyer, accountant—go be that. I'd write, but I wouldn't tell anyone I was writing."
Smarts knew Rapsody's ambition, so he coaxed her into contributing to the club's first mixtape. She recorded two songs and rapped off-campus for the first time at the group's sold-out release party at The Brewery.
"It was really, really fun," Smarts remembers like a proud older brother. "It was about letting everyone get their feet wet. We helped get Rapsody's feet wet."
Two songs in, Rapsody knew she loved being in the booth, but she never anticipated that her hobby could become something more. Rapsody had met 9th Wonder at that first battle. The next time he came, he listened to the club's mixtape. Rapsody sat in the back of the room, as far away from him as she could get, refusing to make eye contact.
"I was just doing it for fun, you know?" she remembers. "But 9th kept saying, 'Take it back, take it back, take it back.' Why is he doing that? I don't want to listen to it anymore."
To her surprise, the producer pointed directly at her and said, "That's your star right there."
9th Wonder began to coach the young emcee. He encouraged the most active members of H2O, including Rapsody, Foolery and Charlie Smarts, to band together as Kooley High. After three years at N.C. State, her education began in earnest. It had nothing to do with accounting. She'd drive from her sister's house to class, only to sit in the car and write verses or to study the vocal delivery of A Tribe Called Quest and the lyrics of Jay Z.
Kooley High developed a following among locals and 9th Wonder's network of fans. When the producer began to work with bigger acts like Destiny's Child and Jay Z, he continued to mentor and promote the young group, especially his favorite emcee, his young protégé Rapsody.
I'm happy she's made it this far, and she's going to make it even further. They're gonna love her and welcome her with open arms," says Smarts of Rapsody's upcoming Packapalooza set. She played the event with Kooley High in 2013. "They'll see her star has grown. I just feel amazed and proud that I'm a part of the story."
Or was: In the last few years, Rapsody has felt increased pressure to distinguish herself as a solo artist. As a result, the future of Kooley High, who have an album mostly finished but unreleased, is unclear.
"How do I try to introduce myself as Rapsody, but also work with these guys in a group?" she asks. She wrings her hands, and her eyes bounce around the room. "From a branding standpoint, I felt like the best thing to say was, 'Y'all go do your next album, and we'll meet up again somewhere later on.' That ended Kooley."
Smarts isn't as ready to admit that his friend has moved on.
"Everything's good, you know," he says, before a long pause. "With anybody in the group, if they want to do a solo endeavor, that's what it is."
After the split, Rapsody's verse on Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly afforded her considerable attention. It's difficult to know whether that's because of her talent as a rising emcee or because she's "the girl on the Kendrick track." Either way, as with her attachment to 9th Wonder and her extrication from Kooley High, Rapsody is taking the next step with careful consideration. She thinks an association with big names is a natural part of the process, just as the boosters on a rocket ship eventually dislodge after the spacecraft successfully makes orbit.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
"Every artist has somebody who gives them a co-sign until they're able to stand on their own," she explains, pointing to Big Daddy Kane and Jay Z, King Mez and Dr. Dre. "That's just the progression, whether you're a man or a woman. I hate the stereotype that every woman has to have someone to bring her in. No, every artist does."
9th Wonder knows his name can only take Rapsody so far and—sooner, rather than later—separation will be necessary. His face towered over hers on the cover of her first mixtape, Return of the B-Girl; on the Packapalooza bill, the producer requested his name come beneath hers, if it must appear at all.
"If you don't want to compromise your art, name recognition is going to take time," Rapsody says, hinting at the pressure to brand herself with a gimmick or, as is often the case for female artists, remove her clothes. "People remember you when you pop off, but for the average artist, there's 10 years of hard work before that. I'm going to be around for a long time, not here today and gone tomorrow."
Now, it seems, is the time that Rapsody will either begin to see returns on that promise—or figure out a way to use that accounting degree. She is contributing to the Indie 500 project, a collective that pits the rosters of 9th Wonder, Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli against "radio rap." And she expects to release her second proper album later this year, in the wake of her Lamar-boosted breakout.
Back in January, when Lamar called, Rapsody was ready to put her decade of practice to the test. They only talked long enough for her to hear the song's title. A deadline and a beat arrived next.
"I was like, 'Don't say no more. I get it.' I had to tell myself, 'Don't overthink this. Just do you,'" she says. "When the time came, it was like breathing."
The call underlined one of Rapsody's key struggles moving forward: The rapper has always been dedicated to the culture of hip-hop, approaching tough topics with heady wordplay. Unfortunately, that approach doesn't immediately lend itself to easy mass appeal.
"I'm an over-thinker. 9th tells me all the time," she says with an eye-roll. "I like suspenseful movies. I love Law and Order. I like double entendre, but the average person doesn't always like to think that hard. I want a majority of people to like my music, and I don't want to be stuck in this box where I'm this super lyrical miracle hero."
She throws the lines out with exaggerated gestures, poking fun at herself as much as the concept.
"I love music and I love hip-hop, but my purpose is to be a role model," she explains. "I want people to know that you can be the girl next door and still be dope, still be sexy. I might not be doing cartwheels in money or driving fly cars, but I'm making a difference in this world. That gives me strength. I have a purpose, and that's what it is."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Microphone control"