For Queen Pen, coming back after an almost three-year hiatus has made for a tiring, but welcome, journey.
"It's hard," said the rapper, whose Conversations With Queen is scheduled to arrive May 22. "I've been doing a lot of promo stuff and been in the studio. I had six and a half weeks to finish the body of my album. Between all of this ripping and running, I still got to come back and take care of my kids."
Pen's family has much to do with why we haven't heard much from her in the past few years. In 1997 she debuted on Blackstreet's hit "No Diggity" and dropped her first LP, My Melody. Produced mostly by Teddy Riley, the LP spawned the hit "All My Love" and her signature cut "A Party Ain't a Party," which is still popular in clubs today.
Yet after she became pregnant with her third child, the Brooklyn MC decided that raising her kids outweighed the pursuit of superstardom.
"Family comes first," the single mother of three explained. "That's why I took a break. I wanted my daughter to know who I was. I ain't want to just push out a baby and start working immediately, hitting the road and putting in a lot of hours, and then not have that bond with my child."
Even so, "I miss the stage," she said. "I miss performing."
The Queen's hiatus was almost longer than she wanted it to be. Signed to Teddy Riley's imprint Lil' Man, her contract became property of parent company Interscope once Lil' Man folded.
"[Riley] was telling me, 'You leave [Interscope] and I'll sign you to my new situation,' " Pen, 28, said. "Me being a family-orientated person, I got off and signed with Teddy. Then he decided not to do his new [label] deal. I was left out in the cold."
With no recording home, Pen went back to square one and began shopping a deal. "This industry is so tricky and these people are so funny, I didn't know what to expect," she said. "But I always knew if push came to shove, I probably would end up with Teddy. I would've waited for him to get a deal. But it's hard when you got kids. I got bills.
"I was stressed," she continued. "But before making records, I was surviving with no job. I found a way. I would just had to go back to my survival tactics if I didn't have a deal."
Lucky for Pen, she has friends in high places. She was offered a contract by her pal Kedar Massenburg, who happens to be the head of Motown.
"[Motown] was willing to give me another chance," the performer said. "I grew up with Kedar, and we have a good relationship. It's not a lot of artists that have a relationship with the CEO of their label where the CEO sits up in the studio with you all night. Where I could just walk in his office and tell him about a problem. "
The resulting Conversations With Queen has a much rougher edge than My Melody. "Baby's Daddy" finds her putting an ex in check, and she exchanges verses with Prodigy and Cam'ron on "I Rep."
"This trip around, I was able to show a side of me they didn't get the first time," she says. "People knew I was [hardcore] as a person, but they ain't know me for that on record."
On the album's first single, "I Got Cha," Pen spits venom at perpetrating females, but she denies any assumptions that her lyrics are directed toward Foxy Brown. (The two were rumored to have had an altercation at a music convention.)
"That was a few years ago. Nothing's up between us," Pen said. "I ain't seen her. If something was up, then you would hear about it. People know me. I don't do battles on record; you make a record about me, I make a record about you. Sooner or later I'm going to have to punch you in your face. If it was really something, they would hear about us scrapping in the streets."
Like many of her peers, Pen hopes to segue from music to acting. Later this year she'll appear in the independent films "Murda Muzik" (starring Mobb Deep), the comedy "Family Reunion" and the action flick "Ladies Night."
The rapper also will have a collection of her short stories, which she described as "ghetto Harlequin romances," released this summer. The book is being published by Massenburg, who has already optioned movie rights.