For her part, the Pooch suggests A&M could have promoted the album better. But the rapper also blames herself for not taking the wheel on the project. The ruthless rules of hip-hop say you live or die by your own rhymes, but the Pooch showed up in the writing credits on only five of Female Preacher's 11 songs.

Part of the problem was that the Pooch's family was cramping her style. Now a mother of two, the Pooch had to juggle studio time and her kids. "Everything happened so fast," she remembers during an interview from her home in Glendale. "I was pregnant with my daughter, and I was taking my son in the studio with me."

Realizing she couldn't have it all, the Pooch shopped out writing assignments. "It was like I was trying to give a lot of people chances," she says. But the rapper adds that the various writers didn't always come up with songs the way she would have done them.

The Pooch is a keen judge of what went wrong. Female Preacher is the sound of a rookie artist being pushed and pulled a thousand different ways. Where top contemporaries like Monie Love and Yo-Yo immediately establish their presence on record with brilliant rapping and engaging, outrageous personalities, the Pooch's identity dissipates in the role of interpreter. Producer Felipe Delgado's beats would sound fresh on either coast, but his overall musical concept for the album, eclecticism minus the vision of a De La Soul, makes it even tougher for the Pooch to find a groove. The tracks march through hard-core, swing, blues and house with the rapper in the passenger's seat more often than not.

On the mic, the Pooch is no Monie Love, but she's headed in that direction. Granted, there are clichās and predictable rhymes aplenty, but the rapper can also throw in the rhythm changes, the tongue-twisting word plays and the lyrical originality to let you know she has pro potential.

The Pooch, perhaps sensing her second album has a make-it-or-break-it warning label attached, promises she'll be the one barking the orders this time. "I'm going to write everything," she says. "This time I have to prove it to myself, prove I can do it."

For now, the Pooch's most important contribution remains the discovery of Ce Ce Peniston, an unexpected find if there ever was one.

While recording Female Preacher, the Pooch was searching for a singer to add vocals to the title track. She remembered meeting a woman named Malaika Sallard at a talent show, but when it came time to get Malaika into the studio, the rapper found she'd lost her future label mate's number.

Producer Felipe Delgado remembered Peniston from hearing her on a demo tape and brought the singer in to do background vocals on the song. The response from everyone who heard Peniston moved the Pooch to invite her back for more vocals on "Kickin' da Blues" and "I Like It."

A&M's Lehman wasted little time making Peniston his second Phoenix signee, and the singer quickly made the loss of Janet Jackson easier for the label to swallow. "Finally," the eventual title track off Peniston's debut album, was released late last year, and topped club playlists in London and in Billboard. It also went Top 5 on the pop singles chart. "Love Thang," her second single, duplicated the chart-topping performance of "Finally." Now "Keep on Walkin'" is poised to complete the hat trick. This past June found Peniston kicking her newest club anthem on the Arsenio Hall Show, her A&R rep's answering machine and at a KKFR-FM Power House show at the Valley's Desert Sky Pavilion.

Sitting in the front row at Desert Sky while warm-up acts go through sound check, Peniston talks in matter-of-fact tones about her accomplishments. You get the feeling she'd be surprised if kids from San Francisco to Berlin weren't dancing to her tunes. While an opening hip-hop group is waxing foul in preparation for the show, the next goddaughter of soul rattles off a series of positive-self-esteem quotes that range from quietly confident to brashly egotistical. It's as if she's jumped straight from the pages of some how-to-make-your-first-million-in-show-biz-before-you're-25 best seller. Even though she's got her black X cap pulled on backward and a stud in her nose, she'd probably be equally comfortable in a business dress. Financial world terms like "lower-accountant" are now part of her vocabulary.

Peniston, also 21, has been on one kind of a stage or another since she played Buttercup in a grade-school production of H.M.S. Pinafore. In between a variety of talent contests and the odd wedding gig, she managed to squeeze in the Miss Black Arizona crown in 1989.

Even without the Pooch's leg-up, Peniston thinks she may have risen to the top anyway. "I feel like anything's possible," she says. "I know one thing: If I wasn't at this spot, I still would be achieving to get to this spot."

Actually, it's hard to argue with Peniston's ego. She's not just up there putting the face of a beauty queen on some producer genius's house tracks. At 21, Peniston, who's often tagged as the next Chaka Khan, sings with the richness and depth of a Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, but at house speed. Her voice moves fluidly from the rumbling bottoms of the blues through brassy conversation, expertly caressing the breezy melodies of her songs and punctuating them with a falsetto if that's what the song calls for. At Desert Sky, Peniston buries lip-synching contemporaries like Jackson. One minute she's dancing with such reckless abandon it shakes one of her overall buttons loose. The next, her voice is booming all over the grounds a cappella.

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