"NOW that I'm back, forget about the other chicks. You won't miss 'em," vows hip-hop veteran Eve on one of the tougher-minded tracks from "Lip Lock."

Confidence becomes the rapper. Hitting stores and download sites today, this return to music has been only 11 years in the making and waiting (and then remaking) from the Philly-formed star who also answers to the name Eve Jihan Jeffers.

That's like three career lifetimes in music, she agreed. Which raises the question: Do they still need her, will anyone still love her, when she's 34?

"It took so long to get this album out, we wound up tossing the original recordings and doing the album all over again," Eve shared in a recent chat, still "kinda jet-lagged" from a trans-Atlantic plane ride but pleased to be talking to her local paper.

"I even thought - half-seriously - about changing the name of the album to 'The Many Faces of Eve,' " she said, " 'cause the album's so schizophrenic." Meaning, a real variety pack - from the tough-nosed lead track "Eve" that shouts out, "I'm Philly born, bred, raised," and the boasting (with Missy Elliot) "You Wanna Be," to the Nigerian Yoruba-language-sampling dance groove "She Bad Bad," and Propain auto-tuned reggaeton jam "All Nice." Eve also is going pop on us, most blatantly on a "big hook" collaboration with Cobra Starship rock-crooner Gabe Saporta, "Make It Out This Town," that she and he performed recently with Eve's homies and "early influences" the Roots on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."

"In the end, we wanted ["Lip Lock"] to be fun and fresh," she said, speaking not only as the performer/song collaborator but now also as her own record-label chief. "Nothing on the album sounds like anything on the radio. That's a conscious thing."

Challenging expectations has long been Eve's goal, since she shifted gears as a teen performer (and Martin Luther King High School student) from her first endeavours as a soul-pop vocal soloist and group (Dope Girl Posse) participant "hitting every talent show in town, driving my mom crazy as she chauferred me around." Inspired by the stylistic singing/rap mashups of Another Bad Creation, "we thought, 'Why not try and be like a girl version of them?' "

Then and even now, female rappers were a rarity, for reasons that Eve says she still can't understand beyond the obvious complaints of "sexism and a glass ceiling" in the music business and radio. Yeah, it's still common practice on radio stations to never play two female artists back to back (although it's OK to play guys ad infinitum). "On the other hand, I'm playing [European] festivals this summer that never used to let any hip-hop on the bill," she noted.

Breaking loose as a rapper as Eve of Destruction, and abandoning singing "except occasionally in concert," Eve first got props on tracks with Prince, then the Roots (with "You Got Me" - a Grammy-winner that cited Erykah Badu's singing contribution, though not Eve's).

But there was no ignoring her 1999 solo-album coming-out party, "Let There Be Eve . . . Ruff Ryders' First Lady," an album establishing Eve as a "pitbull in a skirt," to cite one frothing reviewer. A couple of years later she'd score in the pop world, too, in a huge crossover collaboration with Gwen Stefani, "Let Me Blow Your Mind," that claimed the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung collaboration.

Collectively, Eve's first three albums (also "Scorpion" and "Eve-Olution") sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, lifting her into the rarefied fly-girl zone of Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, Da Brat, Missy Elliot and Lil Kim. In classic rap entrepreneurial fashion, Eve also scored her own Fetish clothing line and put her pretty looks and persona to work in films like "Barbershop" and as star of the three-years-running (2003-2006) UPN sitcom "Eve," fittingly playing a clothing designer.

Then as the music business contracted, institutional memories faded fast. Even big sellers like Eve would now be ruthlessly judged by their labels on just the success or failure of their most recent single or two. Problem one - "Eve-Olution" went only gold, not platinum (falling short of a million sales). "Then when 'Tambourine' and 'Give It To You' - the first two singles off my next album [originally named "Here I Am," later "Flirt" then "Lip Lock"] didn't take off [in spring/summer 2007], Interscope and I had a falling out," she said.

Competing label EMI soon connected with Eve, "then . . . nothing happened. They were having their own internal problems. And it took years to unravel the whole mess and get control back of my music again." Eve's now CEO of her own imprint, FTR Music - short for From the Ribs - distributed by Sony/Red in the U.S. and Sony Universal worldwide. "The good news - I'm the final creative authority. The bad news - I have no one to blame but myself!" she added with a laugh.

As lead-up to "Lip Lock," Eve has surfaced in recent years on singles with Gwen Stefani, Keyshia Cole, Kelly Rowland, Ludacris, Alica Keys, Jill Scott and Shaggy.

She's also worked the acting side some more, guesting on "Glee," taking roles in films. "I'm in two movies that are supposed to come out this year. In 'Bounty Killer' I play a bad person, the queen of the gypsies. In the other, 'Wifed Out,' I play a psychiatrist and love interest to a basketball player who's changed his name, kind of like the Lakers' Metta World Peace [formerly known as Ron Artest]. Both parts were really different for me."

And as celebrity watchers know, Eve also has occupied much of the last three years living it up in London with Maximillion Cooper, a successsful entrepreneur (the "Gumball 3000" brand) who shares Eve's love of fashion and her "tomboy" passion for tooling around in fast cars in beautiful settings. "But it's not true that he's a billionaire. And it's not true I'm pregnant," she added with a laugh. "That rumor got started after I was spotted in a big puffy coat."

Definitely troubling Eve though, is all the grief she's taken on gossip sites because her guy is Caucasian. "I'm a girl from Philly, from the 'hood, the Mill Creek projects. It's not something that's the norm, so I get that. On the other hand, three years later, it shouldn't still be such a big deal. At the end of the day, I don't see color. Love is love. My mother raised me that way. And in Europe, it's so common. You see more interracial relationships than not. Literally no one cares."

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