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“I Am All of Them, They Are All of Me”: An Album Review of Rapsody’s EVE

By Tyler Bunzey | @t_bunzey |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Friday, September 20, 2019.

“Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 Black

faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-

fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,

cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews.  They stare

across the space at me sprawling on my bunk.  I know

their dark eyes, they know mine.  I know their style,

they know mine.  I am all of them, they are all of me;

they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.”

Etheridge Knight, “The Idea of Ancestry” (1986) 

From the first words of this opening stanza by Etheridge Knight—Black Arts poet and incarceration survivor, the reader encounters a stark juxtaposition between the brutality of the speaker’s incarceration and the comfort of his ancestors. Before we know of his father, his mother, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, we know that this ensemble encounters him from the wall of his presumably small, concrete cell. They “stare” not with him, initially, but “across the space” as he lies on his “bunk,” contemplating their presence. The encounter is initially alienating with the cold loneliness of the cell defining their interaction. 

The next sentence, contrasting the coldness of his cell, immediately uncovers the intimacy that the presence of their 47 souls signifies to the speaker: “I know / their dark eyes, they know mine.” What greater intimacy in the space than knowledge of one another? In a system so intricately designed to disallow such intimacy within Black familial relationships, what incommensurable power is imbued within the speaker through this knowledge? The speaker pushes further, as it is more than knowledge but a shared presence, not just being with one another but being one another in a chorus of intimacy, belonging, and support that his ancestors give him: “I am all of them, they are all of me.” 

In the opening lines of her magisterial third album EVE, Rapsody conjures this ancestral ensemble that provides comfort even in the darkest, most brutal times. After trading lines with Nina Simone in the prominent “Strange Fruit” sample echoing through the track, Rapsody opens EVE, “Emit light, Rap, or Emmitt Till.” This arresting line places Rapsody’s recurring theme of self-love, empowerment, and positivity in her body of work against the death that Black women like Nina Simone saw as ever-present in Black life. The subtle brilliance of this opening line comes from Till’s history: it is the pain and bravery of Till’s mother that enabled our national remembrance of him and galvanized a nation to begin to examine the practice of lynching in the US South. Wrapped in the aural arms of Simone whose music coupled protest (“Mississippi Goddamn”) with Black womanist life (“Four Women”), Rapsody captures the joy, pain, and resilience of Black womanhood in EVE

With 16 tracks named after famous Black women—ranging from Nina Simone to Aaliyah, Myrlie Evers-Williams to Michelle Obama, Sojournor Truth to Afeni Shakur—Rapsody consciously invokes the historical strength of Black women. Although ready-made for a university class or reading guide for Black feminist criticism, EVE is more poessay than dissertation, using her signature rippity-rap style to represent the complexity of Black womanhood in the present through the legacies of those who have come before. 

Beautifully interwoven with features from hip-hop royalty like Queen Latifah and the GZA, spoken word performances from poet Reyna Biddy, and soul-powered production from 9th Wonder, Eric G., Mark Byrd, Khrysis, and Nottz, the album and its insistence for Black women to really live is certainly worthy of her demand for an “honorary Master’s.” EVE is the womanist answer to Pharoahe Monche’s injunction to “put them hands up / let’s live” (“Crazy,” JAMLA is the Squad II). True to hip-hop’s tradition, it merges the party with the political to excavate life in a society designed to extinguish it. 

Rapsody’s invocation of her ancestors moves much deeper than simply in the titles to each track. In “Nina” Rapsody voices a call, “And still we persevere like all the 400 years of our own blood Africa / old panthers looking back like who going come up after us?” to which spoken word poet Reyna Biddy later fashions a response, “I'm extra-terrestrial, I was created different / I've been here many times before and I've never been defeated / And still, I will never be defeated.” 

Rapsody, Biddy, and the artists of EVE are those who are answering the Panthers’ call, a group so integral to the album’s ethos that Rapsody references them throughout and even mimics Huey Newton’s iconic wicker chair photograph in the music video for “Oprah.” Like Biddy, Rap recognizes that those who have come before constitute her identity. Rapsody name drops in her bars over 128 times with proper name references making up a staggering 18.5% of the album’s lyrical content according to the Twitter account Hip-Hop by the Numbers. 

This foregrounding of Black women’s legacies intertwines present figures with ancestral ones, weaving together a support system that lends Rapsody strength, identity, and courage to face a world that is invested in the erasure of women like her. 

Like her Grammy-nominated album Laila’s Wisdom (2017), one of Rapsody’s primary themes of EVE is empowerment. She resurrects the tomboy fly aesthetic on “Aaliyah.” She shows that she’s “fine to the bone” on “Tyra.” She gives us a ladies night club anthem on “Michelle.” She declares Black women’s royalty on “Hatshepsut” with assistance in a stunning verse from Queen Latifah. Rapsody’s primary goal in EVE is to celebrate and empower such diversity of Black womanhood, but EVE is equal parts celebration and protest, suggesting that celebration and empowerment comes out of a need for Black women to articulate their own narrative: 

“White men run this, they don't want this kind of passion (Talk)

A Black woman story, they don't want this kind of rapping (Talk)

They love a fantasy, they love the gun bang action (Talk)

What good is a Black women to them? (Yeah)

Raped us in slavery, they raping us again (Yes)

Only put us on TV if our titties jiggling (Uh)”

—Rapsody, “Cleo”

Without devolving into slut-shaming or promoting respectability politics, Rapsody tells us that her celebration of Black womanhood comes from political necessity. She recognizes that American culture has always reduced Black sexuality to the asexual Mammy or the hypersexualized Sapphire stereotypes, and part of EVE’s empowerment narrative comes from this need to diversify representation of Black womanhood and sexuality. 

It’s precisely at this speaking back to American mainstream representations of Black womanhood that gives EVE its unique power, a power that Laila’s Wisdom doesn’t fully capture. Rapsody isn’t playing with us, and we can hear it. She shoots venom at RapRadar’s B.Dott Miller in “Cleo” after he tweeted that she wasn’t an elite emcee. After JID delivers this line “behind every great man is a bad bitch handling shit” on his guest verse on “Iman,” Rapsody hits him back with the final lines of the track, “I appreciate your elegance JID, but bro, love, tell me, who the fuck you calling a bitch?” This is a Rapsody that doesn’t take any shit, not even from her features. But it isn’t just fearless, don't-take-no-shit bars that make this album capture what Brittney Cooper might call eloquent rage. 

It’s also Rapsody’s cadence, the play with her voice, the way she bends words, the beats themselves; every bit of this album’s content is a bit edgier and harder than what we heard in Rapsody’s past work. She wants to raise up the women around her and empower her community, but she isn’t going to cater to an audience unready for Black women to live. The push in her voice in almost every track registers the disrespect that she receives from other emcees and her discontent at feeling boxed in. Wielding liquid swords in her bars, she is cutting down the walls that industry folks place around female emcees and that American society places around Black women.

It’s too early to tell if EVE is a masterpiece, but if it isn’t, it’s damn near close. There are moments peppering the album that demonstrate lyrical intricacy, sonic mastery (shouts to the Soul Council!), playfulness, and a performance of ease. Laila’s Wisdom came out of an emcee trying to shift rap’s content into positivity and empowerment when the popular environment much preferred party-centric trap. EVE comes from an emcee who knows what the haters will say, shoots back at them like Cleo in Set It Off, and calls for solidarity among her sisters. There’s a self-possession on EVE complemented by a dense lyrical deftness that lends the album an unmistakable and magnetic aural power. Rapsody knows herself, she knows us, and she is beckoning us to grow together.

However, like in Knight’s invocation of ancestry as belonging, Rapsody’s call to empowerment is inextricable from the sexual and racial violence that Black women survive in America. Reyna Biddy tells us of this pain on “Nina” when she asks “Do you see my pain? Do I look like prey?” and reminds us of it as we leave “Afeni” with EVE’s parting words “My God don't like ugly, my God said she need an apology / Needs to know you see all the beauty she created / Needs you to know wouldn't be no you if it wasn't for us / My God said, "How much harder we got to love you?’” 

This love comes from the ensemble. It comes from realizing the magnificent power of Black womanhood. It comes from the ancestors, the Ninas and Robertas, that made an emcee like Rapsody possible, and in EVE she declares, “I am all of them, they are all of me.”  


Tyler Bunzey is a  Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student  in Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.  Follow him on Twitter: @tbunz3

An Album Review of Rapsody’s "EVE"

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