On Sunday, when she makes her first-ever appearance at the Essence Music Festival, the country’s biggest yearly African-American music festival, it will be only the beginning of a whirlwind couple of months for the rapper-singer-actress-designer Eve. Although she has spent the last few years appearing as a guest on other artists’ singles, in movies (including the Barbershop series) and on television (including Single Ladies and Glee), the woman who broke ground for female rappers through her involvement with the Ruff Ryders and her hit singles like “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” has not released a full solo album since 2002′s Eve-olution. Now her much-delayed new album is set to be released within the year. At the Essence Fest—which is in its 18th year and also includes community-oriented programming and panel discussions about politics, culture, religion and more—she will perform alongside artists such as Aretha Franklin, D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige. Eve spoke to TIME about the album, the festival and the state of women in rap today.
Do you have a release date yet for your new album, Lip Lock?
Not an exact date, but we’re wanting it to come out in the fall.
Now that it’s finished, how would you describe the album?
I wanted to really take what people loved of me and fell in love with in the beginning, with the Ruff Ryders and all of them, and combine it with where I am now. As far as my ear with music now, because I traveled so much, I think musically my ear has grown. And then lyrically obviously I think I’ve grown. Hopefully people will feel that. Hopefully my core audience won’t feel like I’ve left them behind. That was a big deal for me, to make them feel like they’re involved in my growth.
Were the delays frustrating?
Oh my god. I need another word for frustration. I’ve completely gone past frustration 100 times. It’s like with anything that you create—you just want to put out. Because it’s been so long for me, music has changed so much. It’s beyond frustration. I just really can’t wait till this record is out.
Were most of the delays on the production side?
No, it was delays on the label side—I’ve switched management, I’ve switched labels, I’ve switched lawyers. And this was over years. And now I feel like the dust has finally settled and the team that I have now is the right team. Sometimes that’s all it takes, for the stars to be aligned and the dust to settle. And I think we’re there now.
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When did you start working on the album?
Honestly, it feels like I’ve been working on this album forever. But I would say a year and a half has been the most work. And then it got finished at the top of the year. I’m just happy it’s finally done.
Will you be performing some of the tracks at the festival?
Definitely. That’s the most exciting thing. I love to perform anyway and I love to be able to do my old stuff, but to be able to do new music is always exciting. I’ll probably do about two or three tracks.
Does the delay in the release of the album make it feel like it’s sort of a comeback?
I don’t like to use those words, comeback and that kind of thing. A lot of people haven’t seen me in the States, but for the last two and a half years I’ve been on a plane, performing everywhere else in the world. So I guess in the States it would be considered a comeback but it’s just not a word I like to use.
You were the first female rap artist to have an album enter Billboard 200 at No. 1. [Clarification: she was the first to have her debut album enter at No. 1.] Do you feel like the climate has changed a lot for female rappers since then?
Definitely. I think in so many ways. Obviously within the last couple years there hasn’t been much of a female presence. Thankfully Nicki Minaj is there, and she kind of was holding the flag and now, within the last year or year and a half, there’s been a lot of young girls that are coming up, which is great. But it’s definitely changed. While there are other girls that are coming up, there’s only one female that is out there.
What do you think is behind that change?
I don’t know. People ask me all the time. Especially a few years ago, people would ask me, Where are the female MCs? And I have no idea. I don’t know why it’s like that. But like I said, right now there is an emergence of some younger girls that are coming up, and that’s great.
Is there anyone specifically, among that crowd, who you’re excited about?
I actually really like Azealia Banks. I like her style, I think she’s really cute, I think lyrically she’s really good and she’s really different. She’s probably at the top of my list. But then there’s a girl named Diamond who is from Atlanta who I really like, just as a person and an artist, I think she’s really cool.
If you could offer one of them some advice going forward, what would you tell them?
Wow. What would I tell them? I think they’re doing it, so far, the girls that I named. They’re keeping it original, which is always, for me, so important. Always be true to yourself and hold strong to who you are, what you are—and it seems like they are doing that.
And this year, in addition to all the major names and local brass bands, the Essence Music Festival will start off with a youth empowerment day and lots of young acts. Between all that, is there anyone at the festival who you’re particularly looking forward to seeing?
Honestly, not one person. I’m looking forward to feeling the whole vibe of the festival. I’ve never been so I’m just excited to be there and observe everything.
Have you been to New Orleans before?
I’ve been to New Orleans a few times but I’ve never been to the French Quarter. I never had a chance to soak it up, so maybe this time I’ll be able to.
More information on Eve’s appearance in New Orleans—and the rest of the Essence Music Festival, which takes place July 5 – 8—is available here.