Growing up I definitely knew who Queen Latifah was, but didn’t really have any sense of what she did outside of voicing the lady mammoth in Ice Age 2. I think I had some sense that she did music too, but she was one of those kind of pop-cultural figures that became famous before my time, so I just kind of accepted her as a figure. In fact, that’s more or less how my relationship with Queen Latifah’s work existed up until I started preparing for this month’s Musical Training Plan, when I was happily surprised. I listened to a few Queen Latifah albums, and enjoyed all of them, but none stuck out to me quite as much as her 1989 Hip-Hop debut album All Hail the Queen. Because I had always known her primarily as an actor, I was pleasantly surprised by how good her music was, and I’m sure that most people my age would probably have similar experiences with her music if they’d give it a shot. Before I can talk music though, I have to give the acting background.
Queen Latifah’s first true acting roles came 2 years after her debut album as she provided small roles in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, a Kid n’ Play and Martin Lawrence movie called House Party 2, and the television series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. She would continue to act and earn bigger and bigger roles while she remained one of the most prominent women in Hip-Hop until the 2000’s when her acting career had finally come to its peak. In the 2000’s Latifah cashed in quality performances in Chicago, Bringing Down the House, Taxi, Beauty Shop, and Hairspray, among others. In 2009, the first lady of Hip-Hop released her final studio album (to date) and for the past 12 years has been an actress and producer of film and television. Most recently she has starred in The Equalizer television series, taking the mantle of “Equalizer” from the great Denzel Washington, and it looks as though acting/producing is what she’s set to do for the next little while. Before all of the fame and success, though, young Dana Owens had little but a job at Burger King and a dream.
All Hail the Queen is an excellent late 80’s Hip-Hop record, and listening to it now I find myself shocked that this was the Queen’s debut. Queen Latifah’s sound is confident, bold, and shockingly mature. Being a woman raised in a police family, her rhymes steer clear of the themes that are so common in Hip-Hop, notably drugs, violence, and misogyny. The album is dripping with the self-assurance and braggadocio that are so common to the genre without the need for cutting anybody else down. It’s a fantastically positive album on which Latifah’s sharp, witty, well annunciated raps provide humor, entertaining stories, and empowerment to all (especially black women). The beats are courtesy of DJ Mark and the 45 King and just as jazzy, funky, and fresh as the best Hip-Hop of the time. The features are excellent including De La Soul, Daddy-O, and KRS-One most notably. Of course, the album hinges around Latifah herself, and oh boy does she deliver on practically every one of the album’s 12 tracks. As a big fan of lyrical rap music, I was positively delighted while listening to this album because, as fun as the beats are, the real power is in Latifah’s excellent bars. It’s no wonder why many consider her to be the first lady of Hip-Hop because even her debut album is packed with punchy, confident, clever raps without falling back on vulgar language or common themes. And for those who complain about ghost writers, Latifah has writing credits on 11 of the 12 tracks on this nearly hour long project, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
Queen Latifah may be known to the younger generation mostly as an Oscar nominated actress, but her importance in the history of Hip-Hop is probably even more deserving of attention and scholarship. Her debut album proved right away that Hip-Hop wasn’t just for the boys and is just about as good as pretty much any Hip-Hop album we’ve covered on the MTP up to this point. Whether or not its your style, I’m sure anybody can find something that will make them smile on this album, and if you can’t that doesn’t really change a thing. The Queen will still have her crown.