Any chemist worth her weight in sodium chloride knows that mixing certain ingredients can very easily bring about an explosion. Something must have sunk in during Psalm One's
four years of chemistry study at the University of Illinois; last year, URB Magazine chose her as one of the next artists to blow up. The rapper's recent deal with Minneapolis indie giant Rhymesayers
, whose roster includes Atmosphere, Brother Ali and MF Doom, can only add fuel to the flame.
"I used to take baby steps," says Psalm (nee Christalle Bowen) of her career. "Now I'm taking sorta like toddler steps or big kid steps. I'm getting to work with some great artists and get a lot of exposure."
Her Rhymesayers debut, The Death of Frequent Flyer, was released last summer to critical acclaim. The loose concept album follows Psalm as she discusses growing up as a shy kid in Englewood ("The Nine"), negotiating the music industry ("Rap Star") and her exhausting work as a chemist ("The Living") over intricate, bluesy production from the likes of Overflo, Maker, DJDQ and Atmosphere's Ant. "I was working as a chemist full time when I wrote the majority of the album," she says. "I was waking up at 4 a.m. every day and writing rhymes at my cubicle when I should've been mixing chemicals."
The album marks Psalm's decision to leave that profession and focus solely on music. "I realized an academic dream, and just was frustrated at the concept of me not being happy with what I'd worked so hard to do," says the rapper, who now lives in Logan Square. "There was only one other thing that I could do that I thought would possibly make me happy, so I just decided to go ahead and try it. I'm broker...but definitely a lot happier."
She doesn't always sound happy on Death of Frequent Flyer, though she's never lacking in confidence. Her biggest source of discontent is hip-hop's gender bias, an issue she acknowledges as the fault of both sexes. Perhaps the album's strongest statement is the scathing "Rapper Girls," in which she takes female rappers like Lil' Kim to task for favoring sexuality over skill. "I wouldn't change being a girl for the world," says Psalm. "I know there's always going to be more guy rappers than girl rappers. I have no problem standing out. But when I work so hard to be good, period, and people start going, 'you're a good female MC,' I'm like, 'so I'm not...good?' Some people do that kind of deliberate labeling that I just can't stand."
Psalm, who's looking forward to stirring up some discussion at the 2nd Annual Women in Hip-Hop conference this week, makes sure these issues don't completely define her. It'd be hard to find a rapper of either gender, for example, who could pull off disses like "honey-roasted peanut-eatin' fetus" or an entire song about macaroni and cheese.
Following an April tour with Brother Ali, Psalm will be heading back to her new "lab" of choice to start working on a second Rhymesayers album, to be produced entirely by Overflo. "It's gonna be more of an alternate universe thing, with some new topics and new looks. I'm trying some new things to show that girls don't necessarily have one trick up in their panties."
I get live at: I would say right now my favorite would probably be the Abbey Pub, because I'm most familiar with it...and their chicken wings are good.
What's cool in Chicago: I like Philly's Best, and I do enjoy going to Sonotheque a lot. It's creepy, kind of weird...it makes me feel like I'm in a laboratory for some reason.
Most surreal CTA story: The day after my album dropped, a friend of mine wanted to celebrate by basically almost poisoning me with alcohol. The very next day, I had an interview. I had to take the train there, and I was really hungover, really still hurting. Actually, you have to be hungover after you're not drunk anymore, and I think I woke up drunk...I was feeling kinda queasy as soon as I got on the Purple Line. As soon as [the train] hit Belmont, there was like 10 or 15, maybe 20 minutes where there were no stops. So of course, this is where I started feeling sick. There weren't a lot of people on the train, so I just discreetly went over to the side and just upchucked.
Like five minutes passed, and I'm like, 'Wow, nobody saw, this is actually pretty cool.' And this huge dude who's in front of me turns around and goes, 'Excuse me, did you just vomit?' And I'm like, all sheepishly, just like 'uh, yeah'. And he's like, 'did you just vomit on me?' And I was like, 'No, of course not'. And he says, 'Look at my back.' And there were chunks just all over this dude's back. I had no idea that I had done this. I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm so sorry'. I had like five bottles of water on me and basically just dumped them all over him, cleaned him up, and I just felt retarded. The thing that made me chuckle was that this guy, he was probably like 400 pounds, huge dude, I was thinking that he was gonna do something gross, like fart in my face or spit on me or something, which he would've been completely justified in doing. He just gets off the train and says, "I hope you feel better".
Fresh from the woodshop: The Death of Frequent Flyer is out now on Rhymesayers.
Coming soon to a stage near you: February 8 at the HotHouse.