When Latifah reigns, she pours it on
Web posted on: Wednesday, September 02, 1998 1:55:50 PM
From Donna Freydkin
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Her name may mean "delicate and sensitive" in Arabic, but in person, rapper, actress and aspiring talk show host Queen Latifah is anything but. "Boisterous," "outspoken" and "unabashedly buxom" would be more fitting.
"I've always been a person who cuts my own mold," says the buoyant performer, a few hours after finishing her set at a July Lilith Fair show. "I don't follow trends. I try to be current but I don't follow what everyone else is doing."
True, that. From her self-assured name on down, Latifah, born Dana Owens in East Orange, New Jersey, has always performed to her own drumbeat. She says she picked her name when she was eight years old from a book of Muslim names. It may be overconfident, perhaps presumptuous, but it's difficult to begrudge Latifah her success.
Latifah, 28, started rapping at the ripe old age of 17. Her brazenly titled debut album, "All Hail the Queen," was released in 1989. 1991's "Nature Of A Sista" and 1993's "Black Reign," in honor of her late brother Lance, followed. With that album, Latifah became the first female solo rap artist to achieve gold record status. She also earned a Grammy in 1994 for the single "U.N.I.T.Y.," a tribute to girl power, from that album.
'An artist first'
"Order in the Court," her fourth album, is also the maiden release on Latifah's own Flavor Unit Records on a label deal recently inked with Motown Records. The album, her first in five years, features guest appearances by Faith Evans, the Fugees' Pras and Sisqo from Dru Hill, and has Latifah fusing straight R&B tracks and hard-core rap.
"I consider myself an artist first. Music has been the easiest way for me to release a lot of my creativity and so everything professionally stemmed from the music," she says. "I was a musician, which helped me get into movies and TV."
By TV, of course, Latifah is referring to her five-year stint as magazine editor Khadijah James on the Fox sitcom "Living Single," which wrapped up its prime-time run this season. Capitalizing on her small screen success, Latifah vaulted to movie roles in "Jungle Fever," "My Life" and the critically acclaimed "Set It Off," where she played a lesbian bank robber. Her efforts didn't go unnoticed -- last year, Latifah was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award by indie filmmakers for her role in the female action movie.
Most recently, Latifah depicted a deep-sea diver in "Sphere," with Sharon Stone and Dustin Hoffman. The publicized problem was, of course, that Latifah didn't know how to scuba dive. But to land her the part, her agent told the movie's producers otherwise.
"I b-sed my way into that role!" she laughs. But she got it.
Reluctant role model
"Set It Off" remains her showcase film to date. The movie came after a difficult period for Latifah, while she was coping with the death of her 24-year-old brother in a motorcycle accident, a car-jacking in which a friend was wounded, and her 1996 arrest during a traffic stop for gun and marijuana possession. But despite the much-hyped arrest, Latifah says she does consider herself a role model, albeit a bit reluctantly.
"It would be great not to have to be a [role model] but at the same time it's cool that you can make a difference in some people's lives. I think anybody who gains any kind of fame becomes a role model involuntarily -- you're just automatically thrust into that position because you have so many people looking at you," she says.
"A lot of people emulate what we do, our style of dress, what we say. You either do something positive or negative with it, and I try to be as positive as possible."
Latifah has a reputation untainted by the many of squabbles and scandals of her fellow rappers. In an industry where vacuous sex too often outsells substance, Latifah has maintained her dignity. She doesn't flash her flesh, either onstage or onscreen.
"Just because some rappers choose to sell the sex -- I'm a big woman and I'm not going to embarrass myself by pulling my gut out," she laughs. "I can be sexy and sensual in my own way."
"Besides," she laughs, "I think big chicks rule."
Latest album sharp, significant
Latifah's music has never lacked spirit and substance, and her latest album especially finds her covering personally meaningful issues. "What You Gonna Do," perhaps the most intimate song on the album, deals with the death of Latifah's brother and encourages listeners to find the faith to keep going, no matter what. And "Black on Black Love" pushes people to look out for and take care of one another.
Some of the tones of rappers' lives, Latifah explains, have come through in the music and "have made things really real."
"I try to do what I do. I see the good, the bad and the ugly and I talk about all of it," she says. "Even if I talk about something that may be considered negative, it's for the purpose of finding the positive side and bringing you out of it."
Her latest album devotes substantial time to lamenting last year's shooting deaths of rival rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. "Black Reign" seems to be part of her own healing process. "Life," about the frustrations therein, deals most directly with the deaths of the two rappers.
"Losing Tupac and Biggie was a serious loss to our music overall, not to mention the world. We're all trying to bring the music back up so people want to party with it as opposed to shoot over it," she says.
Her exultant live performances are certainly more about party than pity. Joining this year's Lilith Fair tour for five dates, Latifah had throngs of sweaty, drained fans clapping, singing, and, most frightening of all, rapping.
"It's working its way into a party kind of music," she says. "We've seen what happens when we let too much of our depressed sides come out in our music. We realize everybody is depressed out there and we bring everybody down. It's almost up to us to bring everybody up again."
Chatting, writing and acting
Treading into terrain where the likes of Whoopi, Chevy and Magic have all bombed doesn't faze Latifah. With her talk show due to air in 1999, the rapper and actress is upbeat. "We just finished shooting the pilot. Everything looks like it's going to go," she says.
Along with hosting her talk show, Latifah plans to release a book next year on self-esteem and self-respect, tentatively titled "From the Heart of a Queen" and based on her own upbringing.
Her latest flick, "Living Out Loud," is due in theaters in October. Playing a lounge singer, Latifah sings jazz and calls it "the best work I've done since 'Set it Off.'"
In November, Latifah will be seen in CBS' four-hour miniseries "Mama Flora's Family" alongside Cicely Tyson, Blair Underwood, Mario Van Peebles and Erika Alexander. And just this month, she joined the cast of "The Bone Collector," starring Denzel Washington as a quadriplegic detective who tracks down a serial killer with his partner. Latifah will play the detective's nurse and confidant.
Nonetheless, Latifah says music is always closest to her heart, giving her the most satisfaction and gratification.
"When I'm in my house, I can't just act out a scene and feel like I did something. I pick up my guitar and make up another song," she says. "That feeds my soul. Music is probably the bottom line, the core, where my joy comes from."
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