New Jersey Feminist Emerges As Rap Royalty, Pop Icon
2:00PM ET April 14th, 2011
Contributor : Hip Hop Blog Staff
A Rocky Williform Company
Every week, HHB will spotlight a legendary hip hop artist and examine their legacy and body of work. Hip hop is 30+ years old, and HHB wants to make sure that everyone understands how rich and varied this musical genre is. From Grandmaster Flash to 50 Cent, there are an endless array of MCs, DJs and producers who have made this music what it is today. Let's clap for 'em...
She wasn't hip hop's first female emcee, but a teenager from New Jersey would arguably become hip hop's most famous lady microphone fiend. In the late 80s, women finally began to get attention in hip hop, with Salt-N-Pepa breaking through to the pop charts and MC Lyte establishing herself as a fierce battle rhymer. But 19-year old Dana Owens brought an altogether different perspective to the game when she linked up with Afrika Bambaataa's Native Tongues crew and released her classic debut album, All Hail the Queen. Latifah was smart, funny and had a crystal-clear vision of who she was as an artist.
Christened 'Latifah' by a cousin when she was eight years old, the young Queen was a clever rhymer with a fluid delivery and her debut single "Wrath of My Madness" showcased both, while the follow-up single, the Sly Stone-sampling "Dance For Me," was a bonafide club classic. She signed with Tommy Boy Records, and her association with the Native Tongues crew was prevalent on All Hail the Queen. She mixed her strongly feminist perspective with quirky, De La Soul-esque diversions like the De La-assisted "Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children." Her image, with the rapper often sporting a variety of eye-catching hats that resembled crowns, soon became as well-known as her music. But Latifah's third single, "Ladies First," really established her as a notable force in hip hop. With a video featuring images of women like Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth and a near scene-stealing guest appearance by British femcee Monie Love, "Ladies First" became Latifah's anthem and a song that became a rallying cry for the female half of hip hop nation.
Prior to releasing her second album, Queen Latifah established her own Flavor Unit imprint, and helped get fellow New Jersey natives Naughty By Nature signed to Tommy Boy Records. She soon released her sophomore album, Nature of A Sista in 1991. Despite several strong singles, the album failed to match the success of her debut. Nonetheless, Latifah's star power didn't seem diminished; the rapper began appearing on several prominent television shows like "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and in films like Juice, House Party 2, and Jungle Fever.
Latifah's personal life hit a rough patch in 1992. The star was carjacked in her hometown, and her brother Lance died in a motorcycle accident. Devastated by the loss, Latifah was also dropped from Tommy Boy due to the poor performance of Nature of A Sista. The Queen soldiered on, and after landing a deal with Motown, she went to work on her third album, Black Reign. Dedicated to her brother's memory, the album showcased a much more focused and confident Latifah, and went on to become her best-seller. "U.N.I.T.Y.," the album's first single, gave Latifah her biggest hit and became an even bigger feminist anthem than "Ladies First" had been four years prior. While Black Reign was riding high on the charts, Latifah added to her acting resume by joining the cast of a new sitcom called "Living Single." The show focused on a group of African American friends and would become one of the most popular shows of the 1990s. Latifah also won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance. In early 1994, Latifah teamed with fellow female rap icons MC Lyte and Yo-Yo to add verses to Brandy's hit "I Wanna Be Down" remix.
For the next several years, Latifah moved further and further into Hollywood. She gave an acclaimed performance as a lesbian bank robber in F. Gary Gray's 1996 hit Set It Off, only to have more drama affect her personal life. She was arrested and subsequently pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and carrying a loaded handgun. She returned to her hip hop career in 1997, following the cancellation of Living Single. But her fourth album, Order In the Court, was only a modest success as Latifah's brand of smart, feminist hip hop had been replaced by an edgier, raunchier style of femcee spearheaded by artists like Lil Kim and Foxy Brown.
Though the album was a relative failure, Latifah's ever-growing Hollywood cache afforded her opportunities that even she couldn't have predicted when she released "Wrath of My Madness" as a teen. She would appear in several more Hollywood films, including Sphere and Living Out Loud, and in 1999, she debuted "The Queen Latifah Show," her own talk show which ran in syndication for three years. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Mama Morton in Chicago, and from there went on to become one of the most prolific actresses in Hollywood, appearing in comedies, dramas, animated features and musicals over the next decade. She also become a successful pitchwoman for Pizza Hut and CoverGirl.
Latifah would eventually return to music in a completely different format than her 1990s heyday. She released The Dana Owens Album, a set of jazz standards that featured her exquisite singing, to widespread critical acclaim in 2004. She followed it up with the similarly-themed Travelin' Light in 2007, before returning to rap with 2003's Persona.
Whether or not she ever makes a full-fledged, triumphantly successful return to hip hop music remains to be seen. But, as hip hop's most iconic female, the girl born Dana Owens has cemented her place in the genre's history. From Missy Elliott to Jean Grae, Latifah's brand of smart feminism has been wildly influential and her continued success in seemingly every venture she attempts serves as inspiration to an entire generation of young women. Ever since she rapped "Ladies First" at age 19, Queen Latifah has refused to play second to anybody...male or female.
All Hail the Queen (1989)
"Ladies First," "Dance For Me," "Wrath of My Madness"
Black Reign (1993)
"U.N.I.T.Y.," "Just Another Day," "Weekend Love"