*** QUEEN LATIFAH “All Hail the Queen” <i> Tommy Boy</i> :<i> Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five stars (a classic). </i>

When De La Soul dazzled the rap scene with its freewheeling, madcap approach last year, the swirl of media attention all but obscured some equally talented peers who were emerging as the East Coast’s latest caste of rap royalty. With this cool collection of rhythm and rhyme, Queen Latifah takes her place in that court as the first lady of rap--a liberating slap at male hip-hop hegemony.

There have been female rappers before, but they’ve tended toward either novelties or self-conscious “Yo, there’s finally a woman rapper” stances. Not so with Latifah. Inventive lyrically and musically, she incorporates fresh Third World beats and--rare for a rapper--doesn’t feel compelled to just “talk” the lyrics, but free to sing some of them.

“Wrath of My Madness” mixes an irresistibly soulful down-tempo groove with the Queen’s melodic singing voice, while “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children” (featuring a cameo rhyme by De La Soul) is a def up-tempo dance jam that’s typical of her stylistic orientation. The only dud in this smartly assertive effort: “Come Into My House,” an unabashed attempt at the new “house” trend in dance music.