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Psalm One - The Death of Frequent Flyer

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Artist: Psalm One

Album: The Death of Frequent Flyer

Label: Rhymesayers

Review date: Aug. 2, 2006

The Death of Frequent Flyer, the second album by Psalm One, represents the best of what the city of Chicago and its neighboring Midwestern states have steadily produced for the past few years.  The record is, at times, a soaring body of work.  While perhaps lacking crossover appeal, The Death of Frequent Flyer marks the rise of Chicago as a fertile hip-hop source and the emergence of an undeniable talent.

The Windy City’s hip-hop scene has, of late, borne a striking resemblance to the University of Chicago, the city’s private academic factory which matriculates PhD candidates faster than Ozzie Guillen can produce sound bytes.  The university is legendary as a generally unpleasant place for those students of a more social stripe.  Yet, for those who succeed or, nonetheless, graduate, their academic accomplishments are met with nothing but respect by others in the ivory tower.  The university is, ultimately, an academic’s academy – laymen can continue adulating its Ivy League counterparts.

Like the quality of the university’s scholarship in the eyes of fellow professors, the music that Chicago’s hip-hop artists have produced has been, hands down, of the highest merit by any critic’s scale.  What has lacked in the city’s workmanlike artistry, though, is the fun and entertainment hip hop usually delivers.  With the exception of Kanye West’s more danceable material – which, when compared to that of other celebrity producers, is a rather paltry amount – Chicago’s music should be heard carefully, its complexities requiring active and, often, prolonged listening.  The shorter attention spans of casual hip-hop fans may render them deaf to Chicago’s more intricate styling.  It’s their loss, however, as they waste hard drive space on the new Young Joc singles at the expense of Chicago exports like Psalm One.

Psalm One is a female rapper with, of all things, a degree in chemistry.  She is erudite and rhymes with precision, befitting a woman who spent some of her formative years in scientific laboratories, those churches of rigor and accuracy.  Alas, while intelligence and craft are two cardinal virtues in hip hop, they do not necessarily put records in DJ crates or bodies in clubs.  Which is a shame, for despite her propensity for all things andante—a pace which allows her to clearly express each syllable but is too slow to move bodies – Psalm One is one of the most promising voices in hip hop today, perhaps even more so than Lupe Fiasco, her Chicago peer and fellow brainy rapper.

The Death of Frequent of the Flyer takes a few songs to hit its swing, but those listeners who advance beyond the first ten minutes are in for a real treat.  “Rapper Girls,” pits Psalm One’s criticism of women in the hip-hop community atop a soul vamp produced by Chicago native Madd Crates.  The song is infused with the same plush relaxant as later material by the Pharcyde, yet Psalm One’s rhymes are of a higher caliber and of a more serious tone than the verses of any West Coast act from a decade ago.  “Hypocrite, bitching like I stole something from you / They only listen cause you got something to run through / So please, get gat / my rap will slap you ‘til your lip’s fat” is, in the course of eight seconds, one of the more memorable passages from a song ripe with cunning.  “Rapper Girls” is one of the strongest indictments of hip hop’s gender power dynamics in recent memory, not because Psalm One is spot-on in her analysis – she notably spares men, who are perhaps more guilty than women for reproducing the asymmetrical relationship between the sexes – but because she delivers it like a prizefighter, balancing force and grace.  Psalm One is tenacious but never sweats.

The effortlessness of Psalm One’s words, and her dexterity in altering her delivery according to a song’s constraints – the double-timed rhyming on “Beat the Drum” is an impressive illustration of staccato, on par with anything by more established stutter stepping rappers south of the Mason-Dixon line – suggests that The Death of Frequent Flyer is only a small glimpse of Psalm One’s capabilities.  There is still room for improvement, however.  Although Psalm One’s talent is very apparent, her abilities as a songwriter are still nascent.  Much of Frequent Flyer is driven by her verses.  Most of the album’s hooks, though, are limited to Psalm One reciting a phrase repeatedly, a functional but not entirely inviting substitute.  I am not sure where exactly the blame for this lies: if Psalm One is at fault so too are her producers, who supplied competent beats but, it seems, little guidance about how to maximize them. 

With the oversight of a more seasoned songwriter, Psalm One could very well become something great, a female rapper rivaling MC Lyte at her prime. Where is Kanye West when you need him?

By Ben Yaster

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