Fifteen years ago, back when she wore Afrocentric gear and dropped feminist rhymes, nobody would have guessed that Queen Latifah would become so ubiquitous.
Whether she's rapping, acting in a sitcom or on the silver screen, writing and producing movie scripts, or smiling brightly in Cover Girl ads, the striking Newark, N.J. native wears many hats, often at the same time. Her grace and charisma make it all look effortless. Just this year, she has starred in two movies: Barbershop 2 and The Cookout. In the next three weeks, you'll see her seemingly everywhere on TV - 60 Minutes, the Today Show, the Late Show with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live.
The appearances will be in connection with her latest project - something that Latifah, now age 34, felt it was time to do. She may have returned to music, her first love, but she isn't rapping over pounding beats this time. Latifah - once known for countering the misogynistic raps of her male peers with rhymes about womanly strength and beauty - is singing brokenhearted melodies, sweet love songs backed by horns, strings and things.
In stores today, The Dana Owens Album (the title is her given name) is Latifah's first record in six years. On it, she covers 12 fully orchestrated versions of pop and R&B tunes made famous by such legends as James Moody, Peggy Lee, Al Green, the Mamas and the Papas.
But wait a minute, this is Queen Latifah - a hip-hop trailblazer, the woman who played Cleo, the angry, cornrowed bank robber, in the movie Set It Off. She's crooning?
"First of all, I always sang," says Latifah, who's calling from New York. "I sang before I started rapping. I always tried to put singing in my rapping even when that wasn't cool. In the mid-'90s, I did a movie called Living Out Loud [in which she sang standards and garnered favorable reviews], and I got a lot of requests to do a [standards] album. But I was in my 20s, and I still had a lot of hip-hop in me."
And movies. Since 1998's Living Out Loud, Latifah has appeared in or been involved with more than a dozen films, including last year's comic blockbuster Bringing Down the House, in which she co-starred with Steve Martin. Produced by Latifah, the movie has grossed more than $130 million. The performer's latest project, The Cookout, hit theaters earlier this month. In the comedy, which Latifah co-wrote, she plays a security guard for a basketball star who becomes an overnight millionaire, moves to an exclusive suburb and tries to throw an outdoor bash for his friends and family from "the 'hood."
Two more Latifah movies will appear before next summer: She teams up with former Saturday Night Live star Jimmy Fallon in the action-comedy Taxi, scheduled to open next month. In the film, she plays a sassy cab driver who helps Fallon, an overeager undercover cop, pursue a gang of female bank robbers. Out in April, Beauty Shop, yet another comedy starring Latifah, is from the filmmakers behind the Barbershop movies. The performer plays a sharp-tongued shop owner named Gina.
Latifah's charisma, that smart, trusted sister-friend energy she radiates made her a natural for daytime TV. The Queen Latifah Show debuted in 1999 and ran in syndication until 2001. Soon afterward, she moved into another arena, one typically reserved for the Tyra Banks of the world: modeling smoky shades of lipstick and eyeshadow for Cover Girl. She also endorses Pizza Hut and Curvation, an intimate apparel company for plus-sized women. And when she's not doing all that, there's Flavor Unit, her nearly 15-year-old production and management company responsible for breaking such acts as Naughty By Nature.
"I'm blessed to have good managers and people working with me to keep it all together and moving," Latifah says. "There are only 24 hours in a day, but I could use more, you know. We all could, right?" It was after her acclaimed, Oscar-nominated role in the 2002 movie musical Chicago that the artist decided to follow up on that standards album idea.
"I felt it was time to do it and make a record," Latifah says. "But it's not a standards album in the classic sense."
No, it isn't. Instead of rehashing geriatric swingers and mothballed chestnuts, she goes for lyrically transcendent numbers originally done by underrated masters in the soul-pop canon: "The Same Love that Made Me Laugh Made Me Cry," by folkish soul artist Bill Withers; "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," by jazzy song stylist Marlena Shaw; and "Hello Stranger," by '60s pop-soul singer-songwriter Barbara Lewis.