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Mask off: When rappers bust their own myths

Rapsody's album <em>Please Don't Cry</em> functions as a reintroduction to the rapper — long defined by her technique, now revealing some of the real person behind that prowess.
Jhalin Knowles
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Courtesy of the artist
Rapsody's album Please Don't Cry functions as a reintroduction to the rapper — long defined by her technique, now revealing some of the real person behind that prowess.

The dress was the first clue. By 2012, Nas was a rap icon in stasis: Though a 2010 collaboration with Damian Marley had reenergized him creatively, his life was in shambles. The Queensbridge rapper was in a struggle with the IRS over $6.5 million, and in the middle of a messy public divorce with the singer Kelis, which had begun just months before the birth of their son. Nas told Billboard that the only thing she’d left him was her wedding dress. In light of this turbulence and the hoopla surrounding it, he decided to lean in — collapsing the distance between Nasty Nas and Nasir Jones. He appeared on the cover of the album Life Is Good sitting alone in a VIP booth, wearing a white tux with the dress, green and sheer, draped over his legs. In interviews, he compared the record to Here, My Dear, the implication unmistakable: This LP was to be real, autofictional, revealing the man behind all the knotty, arcane lyricism.

It is not uncommon for hip-hop technicians to find themselves trapped behind bars. In rap, the persona you start with is one you carry across your entire career: Every “I” that a rapper has ever been is expected to be part of the same constellation. Even when that “I” is largely functional — an identity built on proficiency — it can define an artist. Straying too far from the mean can have wide-ranging repercussions (revisit the discourse around Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers for a little taste), yet falling prisoner to that central likeness can be just as crippling (just look at Eminem). To stop and pivot toward an “I” that is supposedly closer to the “real” one after many years of centering craftsmanship usually signifies a move beyond persona itself. Such a segue is different from crossing over or “going pop,” which is merely a different kind of role-playing; it requires finesse. This is the predicament in which the bars-first rappers Rapsody and Mach-Hommy now find themselves. On a pair of impressive new albums, they each find their ways through this transition, demonstrating the different ways a lyricist can be more personable.

The clue is on the cover of the Rapsody album, too. She appears on the front of Please Don’t Cry adorned in a veil, her face in her hands, a single painted red tear rolling down her cheek. If that isn’t enough of a hint, there’s the intro with Phylicia Rashad, matriarch of the Black sitcom family, who tells Rapsody, “Baby, the only way out is in. I mean, do you even know who you are?” The last Rapsody album, 2019’s Eve, was constructed as an homage to women trailblazers, each song bearing the name of one of Rapsody’s heroes — from Hatshepsut and Sojourner Truth to Serena Williams and Michelle Obama. It’s telling that the first song here is “Marlanna,” named for the artist herself. The preamble marks a clear shift from public to private, the external execution of skill taking more of a backseat to internal considerations of self. “Who am I without these verses?” she asks. She spends the hour that follows chasing an answer. In these songs, you can hear an artist becoming fully in tune with her intuition for the first time, craft and soul aligning, her vision of herself and her work coming into perfect focus. Rapsody has always been a formidable writer, but here she becomes a self-actualizing one.

To be fair, some of that acquiescence was required. The bar for bars has always been a moving goalpost for the women who rap, forcing them to pursue impossible standards. That’s even truer for an artist like Rapsody, who, in a recent interview with Vulture, pointed out that she has had to deal with characterizations as a “pick me,” a hotep and a blunted artist incapable of hitmaking. Eve was the first Rapsody album that didn’t seem as if it was made with those outside criticisms in mind; a Grammy nod for 2017’s Laila’s Wisdom had perhaps provided some of the validation she needed to shield herself from expectation. This record is even less concerned with background noise, the artist entirely preoccupied with the task at hand. Produced primarily by BLK ODYSSY, S1, Eric G and Major Seven, it is powered by a tranquil knock that marries the down-to-earth earnestness of Jamla’s Soul Council with simmering funk and an elevated Roc Nation trap. The results glow with the spark of epiphany.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that the rapper who made “Destiny” and “Black & Ugly” has never gotten personal, but Please Don’t Cry is easily the most forthcoming Rapsody record: more reflective, less reserved, prone to significant stretches of restorative self-care. She wrestles with her spirituality in the shadow of her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, rethinks her sexuality and the associated complications and grapples with her aunt’s Alzheimer’s, which seems to bring greater urgency to every memory explored. Listening can feel like prying into the privileged matters of the artist’s healing journey. Just take the pair “Lonely Women” and “A Ballad For Homegirls” — the former an autoerotic fantasy, the latter an exasperated exchange between friends, with the vexed Baby Tate playing the voice of reason in a seemingly futile attempt to rid Rapsody of her no-good man. Both feel distinctly withdrawn, yet even these closed-door sessions come with invitations to spectate on a lyricist trying to strip her art to something she sees as more human. Unbound, exposed and revealing, the songs bristle with the relief of unclenching one’s entire body.

 Mach Hommy.
Manfred Baumann / Courtesy of the artist
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Courtesy of the artist
Mach Hommy.

You can find Mach-Hommy on the opposite end of the spectrum: For much of his career, the rapper has gone out of his way to be unavailable. His face remains hidden behind a bandana, and for years his music was not only withheld from streaming services, but several of his projects cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to procure. Lately, though, Hommy has grown more concerned with being at least marginally reachable. Most of his music is streaming now; he is more available for press (if still selective); he released his best album, Pray for Haiti, as a one-off on the revivalist label Griselda; and his circle of collaborators is slowly expanding. This all seems to be in service of getting the acknowledgement he's earned. As he put it in a 2022 interview with Pitchfork: "We dug the hole and poured the concrete in 2016. Now, there’s an edifice that towers over the landscape and casts a shadow over half the city, but we’re gonna act like the elephant isn’t in the room, right? It’s not opinions, taste, and preference; this is actual fact."

Still, broad acceptance of that fact requires some recalibration. In a private listening event in February, pegged as an opportunity to “get to know the primary source,” the rapper spoke to the motivation behind these recent moves: “What’s the difference between legend and a legend?” he asked, hinting at a building mythos. In the absence of any info about him, some in music media had created a story for themselves — one of an unknowable figure cast in bronze and, thus, unable to change. In the past, Hommy talked about the masked storyteller as a civic role divorced from individuality (“Don’t check for me, it’s not me,” he said in 2017), but facelessness breeds a worship that he has come to resent. It has been a delicate reality to negotiate. At the music blog No Bells, Mano Sundaresan pointed out the contradiction of inviting critics to an exclusive listening event only to lament their role in his romanticization. His actions haven’t exactly dispelled the myth, but the underlying goal seems to carry into the music he was previewing that day — his desire to put “storyteller” before “recluse” in any given depiction of him.

With this push to demystify himself some comes a need to be less hidden, and a challenge to do so without sacrificing the cult-like air of secrecy from which his aura is drawn. For Hommy, making such a reality possible means leaning into the aspects of his identity that have already been at the fore of his music as a Jersey-born, Port-au-Prince-raised multilingual bag chaser with sharp eyes and impeccable taste. Hence the new album #RICHAXXHAITIAN, the last in a loose tetralogy. The storyteller of the record is not expressly more present, but the signs are there that he is foregrounding his position in his community as key to his personhood. Released just before Haitian Flag Day, it is steeped in the musical traditions of two cultures, existing between the wealth gap of the nations that have shaped his identity. (In conversation with another noted hip-hop Haitian, the club promoter and Tupac adversary Jacques Agnant, on the song “Xerox Clat,” Hommy targets “bloodsuckers of the poor” with “avaricious, hyper-capitalistic aims.”) From this agitator paradigm, the music spirals outward. Hommy explores his rap ancestry, locking horns with Roc Marciano and Black Thought, before extending his creative cadre to include some names outside his usual purview: Georgia Anne Muldrow, Kaytranada, 03 Greedo. You can hear in these songs an artist trying to move beyond perception, toward his self-image.

Despite a clear desire to operate more out in the open, a lot about Mach-Hommy remains inscrutable. Attempt to find his lyrics on Genius and you’ll slam into a wall of DMCA takedown requests, an understandable yet extreme measure to protect his intellectual property. (A press request for them was also denied.) But discretion and craftiness are personality traits all their own, and it’s easy to hear that evasiveness playing out in his verses on #RICHAXXHAITIAN, bolstering the slipperiness of his tricky, painless flows. Tidbits emerge from phrases braided so carefully they feel like seams in persian rugs, each detail a sliver in a larger design. “It’s nobody’s business when you have to mention John Does,” he raps on “Padon.” “I ain’t jackin’ n****s, I chose to keep my ear to the street so I could find hope.” It feels like he has something specific in mind. Exactly what is up to the listener to discern, but in the age of Swiftian pop-culture homework, it can be refreshing to not know for sure.

We often confuse introspection with disclosure. Both require clarity, but there is no mandate that suggests an artist’s soul-searching must be explicitly revealing to others. #RICHAXXHAITIAN makes me think of Vince Staples’ 2021 self-titled album and how cagey it is, even in pursuit of a self-portrait. “I made it on the map without a token / I’m not your token n*****-boy rapper, I’m a charming-ass composer,” Hommy snaps on “Lon Lon,” establishing an uncompromising ideology. He doesn’t have to tell us his story outright to give us a sense of who he is in his songs. Attitude can be illuminating in its own way, and I haven’t heard a more devastating, telling bar this year than “White phosphorus fell on civilians in Gaza / Troglodyte squadron yelling epithets in they jargon.” With those kinds of insights littered throughout the album, a person begins to materialize within. A strong point of view can make more of an impression than an intimate anecdote.

Listening to both albums together, a lesson emerges: The person you are in your music is as much about your comportment as it is about how much you choose to share. Both Please Don’t Cry and #RICHAXXHAITIAN are keys that unlock the catalogs of long-great artists by simply presenting a fuller picture of them as creators. They each resituate lyrical intensity as merely the basis of that artistry, which now extends to reclaiming their own likenesses from the clutches of a lingering first impression. The act of becoming more personality-forward takes many forms. Whether beneath the veil or behind the mask, there are still clues to uncover.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]