Two years ago, Ivy Sole stood among the Class of 2015 at the University of Pennsylvania, having just received her business degree from the Wharton School. Today, the 24-year-old is a rapper, gearing up for her first national tour. Not exactly what most of her peers are doing.
Sole, who lives in West Philadelphia, is receiving national attention as a powerful up-and-coming voice in hip-hop. Sole writes all her own music, which has been streamed more than 2.6 million times on Spotify — where she was named a Fresh Finds pick earlier this month — since she released her first album a year ago.
West, released July 26, is Sole's third album, after 2016's Eden and East. "I've always felt that music was what I was going to do," Sole said. Sole devoted much of her college career to arts and thought the business degree didn't represent her goals.
Sole's music, which she laughingly calls "narcissistic," is truly a personal exploration as she delves into topics such as inner spirituality, mental health, and home.
"Life is short, life is simple / Life is joy, life is pain / Life is wonderful, and terrible / But it's beautiful, and love's the same," Sole croons in her biggest hit, "Life," which was released as a single last year. With a clear voice and strong delivery, Sole's style is similar to that of poet and hip-hop artist Noname.
Sole, who says she finds inspiration in Anderson Paak's combination of classic hip-hop and newer sounds, has expertly shaped her latest album with elements from indie rock, soul, and rap. On the title track, Sole has achieved a long-term goal of creating a hip-hop-meets-Southern banger about her hometown of Charlotte. N.C.
"In these last couple of albums I've been exploring the definition of home and how that's changing," said Sole, who moved to Philadelphia from Charlotte six years ago. "What about me changes when my area code changes? … How do you have an impact on the place you grew up in, and how do you have an obligation to support and foster growth in the city that you're currently living in?"
Those are just some of the questions Sole tries to answer on West. Sole calls the album "an ode to Charlotte," which she feels is sadly underrepresented in the music world. "Charlotte gets no love ever, at all," she said. East and West are her two-part response to this lack of love and a reflection on growing up and experiencing different areas of the city.
Charlotte was where Sole was introduced to music, and her childhood was filled with lessons in violin, piano, clarinet, and bassoon, not to mention gospel choir. It wasn't until age 16 that she began to create music of her own.
"I honestly thought that I was going to be the next J. Cole," Sole said. She imagined a success story mirroring that of Cole, the North Carolina rapper who was discovered by Jay-Z after moving to New York. "But I've become a lot less naive. … I have had a solid six years of making things that were not nearly as good as I wanted them to be, and now I'm finally getting to the point where I'm making the music I always wanted to."
It was in those six years that Sole gained a "creative confidence" in herself and her sound. Through Penn, she encountered new people and music by filling her time with activities such as a West African and Afro Cuban dance troupe, spoken word poetry, and acting in The Vagina Monologues. She even had the opportunity to rap alongside Kendrick Lamar onstage when he visited Penn in 2011, a moment that remains one of her career highlights.
Sole's easy-going attitude has given her the ability to be quite versatile in her work, which continues to impress her manager, Ethan Boye-Doe.
"She's able to combine so many different elements of music … and there aren't that many people who can," said Boye-Doe, 26. "Her voice has a deep and soulful energy to it that I don't think I've really heard anybody else sound like."
Yet her true strength, said Kaila Bridgeman, a longtime friend who saw Sole take the stage with Lamar in 2011, is the sincerity of her lyrics and their ability to relate to listeners. "There's a great vulnerability and authentic quality to her music," Bridgeman said. "The music feels familiar to me, like an extension of her in a really genuine way."
Sole cites writing as her favorite part of making music, and her background in spoken-word poetry has influenced her lyrics.
"If I could make music and be successful at it and not have to interact with too many people I probably would," said Sole, who said writing allows her to give in to her more introverted side. "But when I'm not in my introverted state it is nice to be able to give and receive energy in [a live performance]. It's a very beautiful thing."
As a woman in the hip-hop industry, though, Ivy knows there are still people who doubt her abilities. "People assume that I'm less capable," said Sole, who writes all her own lyrics and makes many of her own beats. "I don't really care that much because when it comes down to crediting, I know what I did. It's just unfortunate that people are consistent with how skeptical they are of women's contributions."
This summer, Sole will get well-deserved credit as she embarks on her first national tour, opening for rapper Rag'N'Bone Man, including a sold-out show in Washington and shows in New York and Los Angeles. Philadelphia can also expect a visit August 30, when Ivy is featured at the Key Philly Music Showcase at MilkBoy.
After that, Sole says her home will continue to be in the West; Philadelphia, that is. As a coordinator for Penn's black cultural center, Makuu, she plans to work at Penn advising students "until [she] absolutely cannot."
And as for her music? Boye-Doe hopes Sole will soon be able to headline her own tour. But Sole's goal is even simpler than that: keep making good music.
"I just want to make as much music as possible," Sole said. "I hope people want to keep listening."