Rapsody, Little Brother And The Reminder That Rap Can Be Beautiful
One of hip-hop’s most damning albatrosses is the fact that it’s so male-driven. The gaze is male. The perspective is male. The music is overwhelmingly male. The decision-making is almost unanimously male. As a result, the way we talk about rap music can often be couched in male sentiment and posturing. That leaves little room for true reflective reckoning and vulnerability in discussing the music we consume.
So when we talk about rap music we say things like “that track was hard” or “they were really snapping” or some other adjective that reaffirms our hyper-masculine reactions to what we hear. I say all of that to say this: rap music is rarely described as beautiful. There’s something about the word “beautiful” that betrays the masculinity we often ascribe to rap music. (This isn’t a rap only phenomenon for men, I might add. When was the last time you heard a man describe something as “beautiful” as opposed to “bad as hell,” “sexy,” “fine” or some other vapid word that betrays how we actually feel about a person or thing?)
The shame of our reluctance to describe rap music as “beautiful” is that sometimes it is the perfect word for what we hear. I’ve been writing about rap music for about a decade and don’t remember many times that I’ve described albums as beautiful. But after listening to Little Brother’s reunion album May The Lord Watch and Rapsody’s Eve, I’m reminded just how beautiful rap can be and how we all benefit from recognizing projects as such.
I could pepper this article with all of the buzzwords to let you know that Little Brother and Rapsody - both from North Carolina, coincidentally - put together two of the most complete projects you’ll hear this year. They’re all rapping their a**es off. They’ve all managed to show musical dexterity needed to hopscotch across a vast array of soulful and boom-bap production featured across both albums. They sound motivated to put out classics as each entity had something to prove. That’s all fine and well. But the true majesty of Eve and May The Lord Watch is the beauty that lies in between the strands of each high-thread count piece of fabric.
Phonte and Big Pooh became underground rap darlings in the early 2000s, offering an everyman approach to rap that was cribbed by your favorite rappers looking for a countercultural entree into mainstream hip-hop. Then, after a couple of classic albums, a legendary mixtape run and an impeccable approval rating, Tigallo and Pooh went their separate ways. Little Brother had been split up for nine years, a span of time that lasted longer than their time making albums together; leaving no sign of a rejoining in sight until a happenstance reunion concert last October. On May The Lord Watch, LB comes back together sounding more connected than ever.
And it feels like home.
Not the cleaned up facade of home, where problems are hidden and scars are covered by the need to pretend everything has always been okay. No, May The Lord Watch feels like the reality of home. The place that we love but have felt the way it damages us. The place we take a deep breath to prepare our hearts to enter as we wipe our feet on the welcome mat.
It’d be a lie to say it sounds like Phonte and Big Pooh never split because saying so would undermine the beauty of their reconciliation. The album feels like home because it feels like when you see family you’ve fallen out with but decide to look past it because love is more important than forcing yourselves to miss more time. The missed years and hard times are still there (producer and former third member 9th Wonder is still absent, after all)—“Doin' Uber pickups, they don't recognize the face, And that's bittersweet,” Pooh raps about the struggles he faced in the last decade on “Right On Time”—but that only highlights the love it takes to come back and make May The Lord Watch.
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Listen, man. It took us a long time to get it right but we did. I love the fact we accomplished the goal but it’s the journey that I’ll always cherish the most. We wrote and recorded every song on this album together. We carried each other. We give y’all the album of our careers, “May The Lord Watch” . . Thank you to everyone that contributed to this album. It wouldn’t have turned out the same way without y’all. (I’ll drop the credits later. I got some champagne to drink) #LBbizness #MTLW #availablenow
So much of Little Brother 1.0’s catalog was about turning their gaze outward—to an industry that devalued their gifts, to record execs who passed them over, to a network that said their music was “too intelligent” (“Dope beats, dope rhymes, what more do y'all want?!” Phonte seemed to plead on 2005’s “Never Enough”). But now they are less concerned with proving themselves to the masses as they are feeling secure in their own skin and holding each other down. On “All In A Day” they rap about their jobs well done and being unconcerned with who gives them praise: “I brought my lunch pail to work every day,” Pooh raps and Phonte follows later with, “Finally accepting what I see and it's a different swag/My definition of freedom is real tight.”
And it’s that freedom that feels so beautiful. Phonte and Big Pooh aren’t concerned with trying to break through rap’s glass ceilings or earn anyone’s respect. Their greatness is self-evident. All they care about is being the best men they can be and loving one another as brothers. In the end, Phonte and Pooh only have each other and they spend 15 tracks reminding us and each other that that’s all they need.
Rapsody’s Eve feels like that same freedom. Her career was full of as many doubters as Little Brother, but amplified by the fact she’s a woman in an industry that sees no value in her success. And often when her music is celebrated, it’s to shame women like Megan Thee Stallion or Cardi B who are more musically and visually sexually explicit. Instead of leaning into a holier than thou approach, Rapsody opted to create a work of love—an album that loves herself, love black women, loves black men and loves hip-hop.
The beauty in Eve is that Rapsody, like Little Brother, is unconcerned with ever-moving goalposts and approval ratings from critics who she feels will never appreciate her anyway. “I don't take time to address opinions that ain't 9th, Dre, or Jay-Z/ Only rap radars I need are them and the streets/ Be careful, the validations y'all seek,” she raps on the defiant-yet-confident “Cleo.” The song is a four-minute venting session about doubters that doubles as a lyrical flex, reasserting Rapsody as one of rap’s elite MCs. The song also allows Rapsody to move on from talk about doubters and really enjoy herself. See, like May The Lord Watch, Rapsody was able to shed the need to prove herself and in return allows her to be her most comfortable and reach a musical nirvana that produced her best album to date and one that is on the way to classic status.
That’s part of the beauty—seeing artists reach that point of comfort with their crafts that they can be their best selves. On Eve, Rapsody is clicking on all cylinders, and hearing her enthusiasm for her work emitting from each track is infectious. She’s bouncy on “Oprah,” playful on “Whoopi” and body-confident on “Iman.”
But it’s “Hatshepsut” and “Afeni” that feel transcendentally beautiful. On the former, she trades bars with a Queen Latifah whose voice is as welcoming and thunderous as it’s ever been. Queen Latifah has always been there, holding rap accountable and demanding we love ourselves when we don’t want to, and hearing her return in a metaphorical torch-passing to Rapsody feels like generational healing. Beautiful.
“Afeni” is a challenge to black men that dares us to love women better than we have been. It demands more from us while showing us the endless things we can achieve with that love we are too scared to embrace: “I know this life ain't easy, every one of us is flawed/ At least love your woman, we the closest thing to God.”
Beauty. Eve is an unapologetic love letter to black women. Every song is named after and themed around a different black woman. Every song is an affirmation of Rapsody’s greatness and a reminder that she is a descendant of a legacy of black women who defined our entire culture. She centers black women in black excellence and frames black death around its impact on the women left to carry on (“Esau, she saw, Eric die/ We saw people cry, think about all of our people's wives”). Eve is a rap album devoid of the male gaze and it’s beautiful to watch how nearly-perfect it was executed.
There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing albums made with love and Little Brother and Rapsody gave us just that. They made projects that show genuine love between men and the depths of love black women possess. Sure we can appreciate these projects at face value for their greatness, but when we allow ourselves to see rap as beautiful, then we can appreciate the true power that lies between the bars and beats of each project.