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Q&A: Rapsody Talks Secretly Working on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

The 27-year-old North Carolina rapper opens up about her breakthrough verse on "Complexion"

One of the most striking names in the track listing of Kendrick Lamar’s surprise-released To Pimp a Butterfly — which went on sale around midnight today, a week ahead of its supposed drop date — was one that very few outside of North Carolina had heard of at all: Rapsody, a Raleigh-based rapper who momentarily steals the show with her verse on “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” Currently working on the follow-up to her 2012 debut full-length, The Idea of Beautiful, the 27-year-old rapper spoke with SPIN over email to discuss working with Lamar on the biggest project she’s ever been a part of, as well as what’s next for her.

What was your upbringing like?
I’m from Snow Hill, North Carolina and I now reside in Raleigh, NC. It’s a small country town. I grew up in a two-parent middle class home. My parents were hard workers, and they always played music in the house. My dad was a huge Luther Vandross fan, my mom loved Tina Turner. I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, through my mom, and my second love to music was basketball. I was a tomboy. Basketball, watching music videos with my dad all day, and listening to music was what I loved to do. I had three older sisters, and a younger brother. I was the kid in my family they always spoke of as being “creative, shy, and sweet”, but I was popular in school. I took Honors and AP courses. I was class president, and homecoming and prom Queen, and I had my times like all kids where I got in trouble at times. But, mostly I was laid back and happy.

What made you decide to become a rapper?
When I saw MC Lyte’s “Poor Georgie” video is when I knew I wanted to become an rapper. When The Score released and I was introduced to Lauryn Hill, that’s when I really knew that I had to pursue it. I wouldn’t didn’t give it an honest go until 5 years later, in 2003. “Complexion” wasn’t a big departure at all form what I usually write about. I write a lot about my life and black life. 

How did you get asked to be on Kendrick Lamar’s record?
I first met Kendrick Lamar in 2011. He was in North Carolina on tour, and came to our recording studio to just hang out and grab some beats from 9th Wonder. Later that year, he returned for another show and recorded “Rock the Bells” for a project I was working on, For Everything. This past January, he reached out for what everyone now knows to be “Complexion.” He’s always shown love, and it’s a honor to be a part of this record.

Did you get to record with him in person? What did you learn about his writing process?
No, we didn’t record this song together. When he reached out I was on my way to Toronto for a show, and headed to D.C. the very next day after for another event. He sent my portion of the song, sans the first half and his verse, and I built off the title “Complexion” and issue of colorism. So, it’s dope our verse fit great together without me hearing how he approached the record or being in the studio together.

Tell me about the making of “Complexion,” did he have the song already and ask you to contribute? Or did you write the song together? Did he give you any specific instructions for it?
He had the concept already when he reached out. There wasn’t much instruction. He told me the title, and that we are beautiful no matter our race but he really wanted to speak to our people and address this light versus dark complex. He said he wanted me to end the song, so that’s what I did. I wanted to compliment the record to the best of my ability.

What does the song mean to you?
I love the record. It’s very important and needed today. I remember growing up dealing with self-esteem issues in regards to the shade of my skin, and I’ve seen it with my niece. No one, especially children, should feel they aren’t good enough or beautiful enough because of their shade. So, this track hit home personally for me.  

What do you think of the entire album?
The overall album….it’s simply amazing. This album is a game changer and monumental. It’s not just a hip-hop record. It’s not just a soul record. It’s not just a funk record. It’s black music, and he pushed the boundaries of creativity. I haven’t heard a major album this honest since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill: the concept, the sound, the storytelling. the emotion. The lyricism. I think this is one of the best albums ever across genres, and I’d say that with or without my contribution. This is an important piece of art to be studied forever.

Was the song a challenge for you to write?
No, it wasn’t a change at all. I’ve released seven projects (one album, two EPs, and four mixtapes). You can say I’ve been practicing and preparing myself all these years for an opportunity like this. If you work hard, when the times comes it’s just like breathing. It’s natural. You just do what feels right.