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Queen in search of a kingdom

Special to The Times

It’s hard enough to master any one career, but Queen Latifah has already found success in at least three. She began as a teenage rapper in the late ‘80s, moved into television and movies in the ‘90s and, most recently, remade herself into a jazz singer. Yet despite these transformations, her relationship to hip-hop -- and hip-hop’s to her -- is constant and complex. Hip-hop is the part of Latifah’s past that lingers with her, while the music’s future awaits her return.

That dynamic ran subtly beneath Latifah’s show Wednesday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, where she performed songs from her new songbook album, “Trav’lin’ Light.” For 90 minutes, Latifah moved through showy big-band numbers, bossa nova ballads, funky soul tunes and one surprise from her rap past. The crowd, though filling Royce only half full, was loud and enthusiastic, showering Latifah with shouts of affection that made the cavernous hall feel more personable and intimate. Latifah, dressed smartly in snug black pants and blouse, cooed, “I love you right back.”

Latifah has always been inimitably likable, even in 1989 when she came to fame off of “Ladies First,” her feminist hip-hop anthem. Back then, Latifah stood out as a female MC who was neither tomboy, gangstress nor sexpot. She exuded a radiant confidence and comfort with both her conscious politics and plus-size frame.

She spent the first nine years of her career moving in hip-hop circles and the last nine years moving away, but age has only burnished her charms. Now 37, she’s more than just an entertainer, she’s a powerful brand, appealing to the Oprah demographic. Cover Girl and Jenny Craig posters with Latifah’s name or image conspicuously dotted the venue hallways.

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Latifah began this makeover as early as 1993, when she joined the cast of the sitcom “Living Single.” Her watershed year was 1998, when Latifah recorded her last rap album, “Order in the Court,” and her first series of jazz standards, for the “Living Out Loud” soundtrack. On Wednesday she included one of the songs from that film, a surprisingly affecting cover of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

When Latifah first turned from rap tunes to torch songs, fans greeted the shift with pleasant surprise, but in hindsight, it seems entirely natural. Not only did singing allow Latifah to bank on her image as an artist of refinement, but it also seemed less risky than treading the youth-driven rap waters as a middle-aged woman. Despite a six-year recording hiatus, when Latifah dropped “The Dana Owens Album” in 1994, the album went gold.

Even with this success, her second musical career is yielding mixed results. “Trav’lin Light” has sold just more than 150,000 copies since its release two months ago. On one hand, her indomitable presence, honed through years of performing on stage, made her an ideal fit for musicals.

But outside of belting out Broadway tunes, Latifah’s voice still seems in search of a home. It’s not that she doesn’t have a fine voice. She sings with power and clarity and knows how to hit her notes. What she has yet to master, though, is how to make these standards her own with a distinctive timbre or inventive vocal phrasings.

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At Royce Hall, Latifah sang Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado,” and on “Trav’lin’ Light” she takes on Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” Latifah’s attempts are pleasant enough, but largely innocuous, even forgettable.

On her rap songs, however, her voice and flow were unmistakable; no one would confuse her with Lauryn Hill or Lil’ Kim. Ironically -- or perhaps appropriately -- the one standout moment Wednesday was Latifah remaking her 1993 hip-hop hit, “U.N.I.T.Y.”

With different music, Latifah reworked her old verses with a slinkier, more soulful approach. Though the song doesn’t appear on “Trav’lin’ Light,” had Latifah released this remake, there’s every reason to think it’d resonate with an emergent audience too old to crank dat with Soulja Boy, but not ready for Anita Baker box sets.

Latifah may not need hip-hop anymore, but more than ever, it’s clear that hip-hop needs her. When she recorded “Order in the Court” in 1998, she was just one of at least half a dozen female MCs vying for chart space and radio play. Her competitors included Hill, Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Eve, Lady of Rage, Missy Elliott, even Latifah’s ‘80s contemporary MC Lyte. Less than 10 years later, that diversity of voices is a faint memory.

Astoundingly, compared with rock and country, rap has been the only major pop genre to become less gender-integrated over time. The Grammys haven’t even handed out a female rapper award since 2003 for lack of nominees. Misogyny in hip-hop has always been an issue, but the lack of female counter-voices has hardly helped. Likewise, the generational rift in hip-hop is leaving a growing, middle-aged audience behind, especially when so many thirtysomething rappers insist on still acting twentysomething.

In recent interviews, Latifah states that she’s ready to return to hip-hop. The timing couldn’t be better. As a jazz singer, Latifah has performed admirably but not remarkably. As hip-hop’s premier stateswoman, she has a unique opportunity: not to “return” hip-hop to some sepia-toned, nostalgia-ridden glory days, but to forge a new space for maturing artists and audiences, as well as re-inject some much needed estrogen.


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