Monique Burrell had just turned 16 when Jay Z pulled her up on stage for the first time. While watching Trey Songz open the concert at the United Center, she said to herself, "One day that's going to be me on that stage." She had no idea how quickly she'd be right. "I kid you not——right when I said that, I felt this indescribable energy," she says. "I cannot put it into words. It just told me to move." Burrell bolted from the 300 level to the side of the stage, where Jay was meeting fans between sets. He signed her hat. She told him she wanted to be a rapper. He pulled her up on to the stage and asked her to spit a few bars.
"It happened so fast, I didn't have time to be nervous," says Burrell as we speak in the back room of a streetwear boutique in the Loop. "I didn't have time to think about what I was going to say."
Now 21, Burrell just released her first project as MoBo the Great in June. She's wanted to be a rapper ever since she was a kid, but she credits that first brush with one of her heroes as the motivation to follow through on her dream. "It changed my life," she says of the concert. "Who would have known?" She remembers how her high school classmates in Kankakee, IL, wouldn't believe that she had actually shared a stage with Jay Z until she dug up video of the encounter three months later. "You don't think that the people who mean nothing to you because you're so used to them could mean everything to everyone."
MoBo recorded her debut mixtape Fuck the Public after she met Jay Z for the second time, when he returned to Chicago in early 2014 on the Magna Carter World Tour. Burrell was 19 then, and she sold a pair of Ray-Bans so she could buy a ticket to the show. She held up a sign that read, "I was 16 when I rapped on stage with you. Now I'm 19 and ready." Jay Z saw it and pulled her back up onto the same stage. She rapped a whole song against the beat of the crowd clapping. "You just told your whole entire life story, huh?" Jay said when she'd finished.
After that concert, Burrell was inspired to scrap the draft of Fuck the Public she'd been working on for the past two years. If she could rap for Jay Z twice before turning 20, she figured that she could make a better record than the one she'd already put together. She started fresh, bringing in local artists BJ the Chicago Kid and Katie Got Bandz to contribute vocals. The ensuing release slides smoothly between the two styles that those artists represent: full-band neosoul and high-BPM drill. The track list is eclectic, but the record has a unified momentum.
Burrell was especially proud to recruit Katie Got Bandz to appear on the track "Bout Shit." "I just wanted to make a turn-up song. Who better to do that than Katie?" she says. "The female in the Chicago drill scene, the queen of this shit? I just like working with women in this industry, because it's so male-dominated. You should support girls."
Though MoBo is acutely aware of the gender imbalance both in rap and the music industry in general, she sees that power shifting. "I think this is the year of the female artist," she says. "You have Dreezy, who just released a very decent EP. And Tink is killing it. This is definitely her year. Females are getting their shit together, and men are becoming more accepting. I think that they understand that you have to. When somebody is as dominant as Nicki Minaj in their field—not even just in music—even if you don't like it, you have to respect it. You have to put it in the conversation."
Burrell is already at work on the follow-up to her debut, a record she describes as "Fuck the Public on a good day." Its songs are already written; she's currently working on sequencing them, and then she'll head back into the studio to lay them to tape. While her debut's lyrics focus on the changes she's undergone in the past few years—in particular, the friends she's lost from putting so much time into her music—her next project will shift toward the bright side of having made music and put it out into the world. "It took so long for me to release this project. It took three years," she says of Fuck the Public. "In order to catch up to my competition, I have to work twice as hard."
Navigating the music industry is more time-consuming than Burrell expected, but she's also committed to doing almost everything herself, from booking shows to mixing tracks to conceptualizing music videos. She's one of those artists who doubles as both entrepreneur and musician, constantly switching roles even if it means she's working insane hours. "It's a healing process to me," she says. "This is my job. I love what I do. I want to work."