Queen Latifah - Biography
By Paul Glanting
To say that hip-hop has been dominated by men would be an understatement. Not only has there been a shortage of female contributions to the genre, but the argument has been made that hip-hop has produced a negative image of women in general. Despite the precedent, New Jersey-born rapper Queen Latifah had the courage to venture into the patriarchal world of hip-hop, and she was remarkably assertive and downright proud of her gender. While Queen Latifah is perhaps not the first female MC, she has set true standards and has gone on to capture copious amounts of mainstream success, including a Grammy, a Golden Globe Award, and even an Academy Award nomination.
Queen Latifah was born Dana Owens in Newark, New Jersey. Owens had a Muslim cousin who dubbed Owens “Latifah” when she was eight-years-old. In Arabic, Latifah means “delicate” and the name seemed to stick. In high school, Latifah displayed an affinity for performance and starred in several school musicals. She also joined an all-female rap group called Ladies Fresh for which she was the group’s human beatbox. While in college, Latifah added “Queen” to her moniker and continued to explore hip-hop. She began to work with the Native Tongues, a collective of hip-hop artists striving to implement a more positive and upbeat force into the culture. Under the tutelage of the group, Queen Latifah began circulating a demo of her single “Princess of the Posse,” which found its way into the hands of Fab 5 Freddy, the host of the highly influential hip-hop show Yo! MTV Raps. Fab 5 Freddy took a liking to her single and helped the young rapper ink a deal with Tommy Boy Records.
Queen Latifah released her first single, “Wrath of My Madness,” with Tommy Boy in 1988. The following year, at just 19 years of age, Queen Latifah released her first album, All Hail the Queen (1989 Tommy Boy), which features her forward-thinking and witty rhymes assisted by conscious-minded contemporaries like De La Soul, KRS-One, and Monie Love. All Hail the Queen includes the singles that helped launch her into the minds of hip-hop consumers like “Princess of the Posse” and “Wrath of My Madness,” but it is “Ladies First” that would become one of Queen Latifah’s signature tracks. It’s important to note, that in the late 1980s, hip-hop as a genre was still a nascent presence in terms of album sales. However, All Hail the Queen sold considerably well.
Using her newfound momentum, Queen Latifah began mentoring Naughty By Nature, a trio of fellow-New Jersey hip-hop artists. In 1991, Latifah made a guest appearance on their song “Wickedest Man Alive” from their breakout album Naughty By Nature (Tommy Boy). She also made an appearance in the video for their anthem “O.P.P.” Meanwhile, Queen Latifah continued to meld intelligent female empowerment anthems with street-smart ethos on her sophomore album Nature of a Sista (1991 Tommy Boy), which included Jazz-infused hip-hop tracks like “Sexy Fancy” and “Give Me Your Love.” However, Queen Latifah’s second album wasn’t able to reach the same level of popularity as her debut. Consequently, Tommy Boy opted not to resign the her. She would again encounter bad luck in 1992 when her brother tragically died in a motorcycle accident.
Determined to conquer her trials and tribulations, Queen Latifah inked a deal with Motown records and released her third album, Black Reign, in 1993. Latifah’s resilience paid off, as Black Reign was a true rebound. Joining her on the album are roaring guest appearances by hip-hop mainstays like KRS-One, Heavy D & the Boyz, and longtime collaborator Treach (from Naughty By Nature). Latifah’s third album also included the track “U.N.I.T.Y.,” which assertively spoke out against rap music’s liberal usage of “bitch,” “hoe,” and other words generally seen as demeaning to women. “U.N.I.T.Y.” would also go on to win a Grammy for best solo rap performance. Queen Latifah dedicated Black Reign to her late-brother and it would be the first hip-hop album by a female MC to attain Gold status.
The same year that the groundbreaking Black Reign was released, Queen Latifah got a starring role on the sitcom Living Single, to which she also contributed the theme music. By this point, Latifah had already built a respectable body of acting work, appearing in movies such as Jungle Fever and Juice. In 1997, Living Single was cancelled and Queen Latifah began work on her fourth album, Order in the Court (Motown), which was released in 1998. On Order in the Court, the MC shifts her sound in a more soulful direction, often opting to let her voice soar rather than spitting streetwise rhymes. Helping her make this transition were contemporary soul icons like Faith Evans (“It’s Alright”), Next (“Black on Black Love”), and Sisqó (“I Don’t Know”). The singles “Paper” and “Bananas (Who You Gonna Call?)” would also help amplify the considerable success of Order in the Court.
Queen Latifah’s genre-crossover would also be further highlighted when, later in 1998, the rapper would star in several films including Living Out Loud in which she sang several jazz standards. After a string of other television and film projects including her own daytime talk show, Queen Latifah returned to music, releasing The Dana Owens Album (Interscope) in 2004. Using her birth name as inspiration for the title, The Dana Owens Album presents a new side of the MC. Queen Latifah’s hip-hop roots are entirely absent from her fifth album and are replaced by jazz vocals with covers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” Bill Withers’ “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” While it proved critically divisive, The Dana Owens Album became Queen Latifah’s best-selling album to date.
Queen Latifah’s acting career would continue to be prolific, as she took roles in films such as Chicago, Beauty Shop, and Brown Sugar (for which she won an NAACP award). She also continued to build on her fondness for jazz standards, releasing Trav'lin' Light (Verve) in 2007. Trav'lin' Light features covers from legends such as Nina Simone (“I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”) and Smokey Robinson (“What Love Has Joined Together”). For the song “Georgia Rose,” Queen Latifah is joined by the iconic Stevie Wonder.
Having crossed over from a primarily urban market to mainstream success, Queen Latifah again proved her immense versatility by returning to her hip-hop roots for her seventh studio album. Her return to rap had long been hyped and the album’s title went through several reincarnations, ranging from All Hail the Queen II to The L Word. Eventually, Queen Latifah settled on the modest title Persona (Flavor Unit Entertainment) for her 2009 album. While Latifah’s musical career had recently been characterized by her collaborations with jazz and soul greats, she works alongside contemporary hip-hop producers such as The Neptunes and Cool & Dre for Persona. Also joining Latifah on the album are artists Busta Rhymes (“Hard to Love You”) and fellow-female hip-hop pioneer Missy Elliot (“Fast Car”).
Before Foxy, before Kim, before Missy, there was Queen Latifah. One of the true pioneers of socially-conscious hip-hop, Queen Latifah’s musical and theatrical flexibility is nothing short of extraordinary.