Song of the Week: "Stand Tall" - Rapsody

The new single from her first album in five years hints at some of the best, most personal music of Rapsody’s career.

Song of the Week: "Stand Tall" - Rapsody

Given her cerebral nature, it's fitting that the music video for Rapsody's personal, soul-searching new single, "Stand Tall," can't actually get into the music before engaging in its own bit of meta-commentary. Tucked into a blank studio in the back of a bare, industrial space, the emcee is engaged in an interview with actress Sanaa Lathan — intimately discussing inspirations, risk-taking, the pair's relationship. After a while, though, the usual, distanced interview shots give way to straight-on, uncomfortably tight closeups, the conversation shifts to the matter of “authenticity,” and we get to the real question Lathan has been wanting to ask: “Are you into guys? Are you into girls? Are you into…?” 

It’s a brutal skewering of the landscape we all now inhabit — one in which the surging popularity of long-form podcasts has nonetheless coincided with an ever-increasing need for thoughtless, bite-sized entertainment; one in which it's important to concern ourselves with sophisticated, high-minded subjects like intimacy and authenticity... but it's also important to get the Likes. For a homegrown, intellectual, and concept-forward artist rolling out her first album since Before TikTok (B.T.), Rapsody taking a keen interest in that dubious state of things would make sense in and of itself. But the Jamla emcee's preoccupation likely comes from a more personal place, given that the notion of authenticity is something she's arguably been circling and wrestling with her entire career.

There's the relatively simple, linear way to describe Rapsody’s career to this point: years of indie hustling as a heady, no-BS lyricist, then a major industry cosign (9th Wonder), a mainstream breakout moment (Kendrick Lamar's "Complexion [A Zulu Love"]), and ensuing fan support and critical acclaim (Grammy nomination for Best Rap album in 2017) after that. Then, there's the more complicated one: a persistent gap (or at least appearance of one) between the breadth of her industry rolodex and the size of her fan base, skepticism (undoubtedly sexism-fueled) about whether she’s been lifted up by the apparatus around her or if she's been deservedly swept off her feet by organic support, and apparently, a nagging and overly nosey concern about who she likes to… you know.

On Eve, Rapsody's 2019 follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Laila’s Wisdom, that pressure, promise, and sense of expectation was all there, wrapped up and tied with a highly conceptual bow. It was smart (both big-picture and within the songs themselves). It sounded good. And yet, it also bowed under the weight of an overwrought concept, with the interesting "names-as-song-titles" conceit spread across not just nine or 10 songs but a bloated 15. Lyrically potent as ever — like the goosebump-inducing beat-drop moment on "Nina": “I am Nina and Roberta, the one you love but ain’t heard of/ Got my middle finger up like ‘Pac after attempted murder…” — the album nevertheless did little to further introduce the emcee herself to the world, with Rapsody's presence serving as more of a vessel for others than as the protagonist herself.

If "Stand Tall" is any indication of the approach and themes to come on Please Don't Cry, it suggests that in the years of reflection and introspection since her last album, Rap has turned her traditionally wide-angle artistic focus in the most refreshing and maybe unsurprising direction: inward, towards herself. On “Stand Tall,” the lyrical showmanship isn't entirely gone, but the most memorable lines are those laid bare and unadorned, like “So I don’t got no answers, you can believe what you choose/ I’m tryin’ to focus on sleepin’ at night and not wakin’ up panickin’,” and “Visits with my Auntie, my Uncle’s ashes on the mantelpiece/ Her tears never stop it’s like the cycle’s on a rinse-repeat…”. Her strained, almost shaky tone lays perfectly against the backdrop provided by Jamla producer Eric G., whose delicate maneuvering on “Stand Tall” provides just as soft of a landing for soul-baring as it did on Mac Miller’s unforgettable “2009.

That Rapsody (and director Cam Robert) would call on Lathan for the music video, who starred in Love & Basketball and Brown Sugar, is unsurprising. Rapsody is nothing if not a student of hip-hop history — maybe to a fault, in the eyes of some. And while her response to that sentiment on last year’s Hit-Boy-produced single, “Asteroids,” was satisfyingly biting and cocky (“N**** call it clout-chasing, when I mention Jay Z/ Fuck y’all — y’all just mad cuz he don’t know y’all… maybe”), it didn't necessarily disprove it. Whether being touted as historical reference points or simply shouting out well-regarded peers, big names can sometimes overpopulate Rapsody lyrics like a Hip-Hop Phone Book, distracting from the contents in between. Add to it that many of those same stars and legends often heavily line the guest lists of her projects (Erykah Badu and Lil Wayne are among those set to appear on Please Don’t Cry), and it can all feel like donning a cloak of artificially added credibility that, for an artist of Rap's caliber, isn't needed. That she strips almost all of it away on "Stand Tall," and shines regardless, is proof positive that she doesn't need the extra help.

When the otherwise smooth proceedings jarringly conclude with the foreboding utterance to “Tell the truth,” it doesn’t feel like we've been watching a cheap gimmick, a put-on, or a marketing scheme. As far as climbing the rungs of the rap ladder, you name it, she’s done it — gathering up legendary cosigns, scratching the highest reaches of critical acclaim, dropping a star-studded concept album. Now, after more than a decade of spinning some of the smartest, almost scientifically fine-tuned stories in hip-hop, Rapsody is ready to give us one that may be rougher around the edges, but one we want to hear most of all: her own.


“Wonder Woman” - DaBaby

“MYM” - Northside Rocky

"Real Probs" - Rxww919

That's all for this week, sorry for the late Friday afternoon send, and the no-show Wednesday. We'll be making it up with a special "Sunday Empty" edition in a couple days, with an appearance by none other than esteemed former Indy Week critic, Eric Tullis! Get excited.