Blessed is the (wo)man  

October 29, 2006


Any way you measure it, this has been an extraordinary year for Chicago hip-hop. Although it's been some time since the platinum successes of Kanye West, Twista and Common paved the way for the local scene to break nationwide, we finally got the major-label debuts by Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco in 2006. Now comes a third outstanding effort by a local rapper, Psalm One, the only woman among the Windy City's most promising up-and-comers.

Born in Rogers Park and raised in Englewood, 26-year-old Cristalle Bowen has been pegged as a talent to watch for longer than many rappers' careers. She first made her mark in 1998, performing as a member of the Nacrobats crew, and she released her solo debut, "Bio:Chemistry," in 2002. The title was inspired by her work at a food quality lab in Chicago Heights -- she graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in chemistry -- but she finally quit her day job two years ago to devote herself to music full time.

"Basically, I spent my year and half at the lab, and if I ever want to return, I have that under my belt so I don't have to go back to entry level," Psalm One says. "It was an academic dream of mine, and I sort of realized that. But I had another dream: music. If I do accomplish everything there that I want to -- if I sell a million records or whatever -- maybe I'll want to be an astronaut or something."

Better you than that guy from *NSync, I note. The artist laughs. "Yeah, right!"

Psalm One began writing some of the material that appears on her new album in 2003, working with Chicago producer Overflo. "He was working full-time as well, and we had to do a lot of late-night sessions and weekends here and there. We'd do two weekend sessions one month, and then maybe we wouldn't record again for a couple of months." In between, there were the inevitable talks with record labels. None of the majors bit, but the well-respected Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers was enthusiastic.

"It's sort of like a catalyst, to use a chemistry term, and I feel like I can do what I want with them if I work really hard," Psalm One says. "This is a label that can help, and they believe in me, which is always nice." The rapper's second proper album, "The Death of Frequent Flyer," finally arrived in record stores late last summer.

Where did the title come from? "At the most literal, it is the end of one road where I was all over the place, and it's the start of another where I'm focused, and the focus is on rap. That's the most literal, but the reason I was calling the album 'Frequent Flyer' when I was recording it was because it took so much to record it and I was moonlighting so much and I was not sleeping.

"Lyrically, I wanted to say that I was going places, and that I could do whatever I wanted to do," Psalm One continues. "In retrospect, when I was writing it, I was in a very different spot than I am right now, and I never thought when I was writing it that I would be in this position. I wasn't thinking that I'd be touring for it; it was just a statement that I was making: 'I'm working as chemist, but I can't leave rap alone.' "

With Overflo's laid-back but often inventive grooves as its base, the disc is distinguished by Psalm One's rapid flow, tough spitfire rhyming and occasional bursts of sweet singing. She has a powerful sense of humor that can range from wickedly cutting ("Peanuts," "Prelude to a Diss") to downright silly ("Macaroni and Cheese"). But she's at her best when the anger is flowing and she's fearlessly tackling some of the subjects that make her blood boil, whether it's racism and sexism in society at large, or the latter problem in the hip-hop community itself.

Witness the song "Rapper Girls," a harsh attack on women who define themselves by their sexuality, delivered over a deceptively sweet groove built on old-school R&B sounds, and with nary a line without a word or two that can't be quoted in the newspaper.

"I like to curse more when it comes to talking about those types of chicks," Psalm One says, laughing again. "I didn't realize when I wrote it that it would be a song that people would mention a lot and call 'a scathing diss.' But I'm glad that it's been pinpointed as a good diss track towards women by a woman. I really am sick of these good-looking ho's with no raps. Be good-looking, that's fine, but write your own raps, and when you do, make sure they're good!

"When I used to try to rap in college, I'd be there with my B-girl pose on and my B-girl stance, and there would be these scantily clad little girls trying to get attention. I was trying to get attention, too, but with my lyrics, not with my ass. A lot of girls can get attention like that. Big deal!"

This proudly feminist, self-respecting but sex-positive attitude places Psalm One in a proud hip-hop tradition that began with Queen Latifah, Salt N Pepa and Yo-Yo, but which somehow lost its way by the time it got to the likes of Lil' Kim.

"If you think about Lil' Kim's first album, she probably would argue with you to the death that she was empowered and would have some sort of feminist perspective that her in a bikini with her legs spread on that poster was empowering," Psalm One says. "But when you can't talk about anything else but sex, I think that's a bunch of hooey, you know what I mean? When guys talk about Lil' Kim, they don't smile and nod and give each other high fives because of her lyrics.

"It all depends on the context. I talk about sex a lot, and I'm talking about my sexuality more and more, even ever since this album came out. My new recordings talk about it more, but it's just apart of my life. It's the butter and not the bread."

Explosion or implosion?
When Kanye West's 2004 debut "The College Dropout" went platinum in early 2004, following on the heels of Twista's No. 1 debut with "Kamikaze," many music industry observers predicted a major-label feeding frenzy similar to the one in the mid-'90s that made national stars of locals the Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and Urge Overkill. But the big record companies were slow to sign Windy City rappers, and those who did land deals endured long waits before their albums were released.

Three weeks after it finally arrived in stores, Lupe Fiasco's Atlantic bow, "Food & Liquor," languished at No. 43 on the Billboard Top 200 pop chart. And Rhymefest's "Blue Collar," issued in mid-July on the J Records subsidiary Allido, has fallen off the charts completely.

"Kanye definitely brought that extra spotlight to the city, and regionally and locally we did get some residual attention from his already astounding career," Psalm One says. "You can't hate on that, but at the same time, we have been grinding in our respective areas of the Midwest for a long time. ... People come out and tell me, 'Yeah, I've known you for a long time, but I didn't finally decide to support you or pick you up for myself until now.' I'm like, 'Gee, thanks for sleeping on me!'"

And does she have any sense that things are changing?

"I get that sometimes. ... But it is frustrating that sometimes people won't pick up on Chicago rap until it sells 2 million copies."