"You'll never be more than that girl who raps good for a girl/But really those titties is giving wood to the world."
As this line from "Rapper Girls" demonstrates, Chicago MC Psalm One (born Cristalle Bowen) is familiar with the disses thrown at female rappers. She's heard the looks-but-no-talent teases, and she's happy to throw some out herself (as she does repeatedly on this track)–but only if they're accurate. It's part and parcel of the blunt, crafty style that's made her a rising star on the Rhymesayers label.
"If you're different or stand out in any way, that's what people latch onto," she says. "I've always just tried to be just a good rapper, period. I'm a b-girl and tomboy and I just let my personality come through."
Growing up in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, Bowen was drawn to hip-hop early, hanging out with breakdancers, graffiti artists, and rappers at nearby Promontory Point on the shores of Lake Michigan. Though she was a poet early on, scribbling her ideas in countless notebooks, her original career path strayed far from the stage. Attracted to science, specifically chemistry (her mom got her a chemistry set after she melted a few cups at home mixing random chemicals), the self-described "shorty who wanted a lab coat" graduated in 2002 from the University of Illinois at Chicago and began working as a food chemist. But as her minor in rhetoric suggested, she was still interested in flexing her language skills.
"I was playing around [with] rapping, because I was really in school to become a chemist," she recalls. "But after four years I was still really into rapping. There are a lot of things I'm good at, but my heart is in hip-hop."
She released her first album, Bio:Chemistry (Birthwrite), herself the same year that she graduated and then joined up with the Nacrobats, a Chicago hip-hop group that included Thaione Davis (who provides some silky rhymes on the new album). Through local artists like producer Overflo (who provides the bulk of the beats on her latest release, The Death of Frequent Flyer), she met Brother Ali, who brought her to the attention of Rhymesayers. Since then, she's been recording and touring, hitting the road with artists like Atmosphere and MF Doom.
And, like a true chemist, she's been refining her formula. "You really need to break things down," she says. "Verses and hooks that break down to beats and words. I like breaking things down to the molecular level."
That attention to detail is showcased on her new album, on which she spits deep, personal stories over bluesy beats. It's also a platform for her funky wordplay, something that guarantees this talented rapper will garner strong reactions.
"I'm just saying all the most off-the-wall things I can think of," she explains. "You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. What I don't like is when rap is formulaic and uninspired."