By 1991, Queen Latifah established herself as a vital and vibrant voice in hip-hop with her debut album, 1989’s All Hail the Queen. At only 19 years old, the New Jersey native changed hip-hop with an original sound that imbued her brand of rap with street-smart feminism and a wisdom that belied her youth. Her signature hit, “Ladies First”, a duet with British rapper Monie Love became a rap feminist anthem and manifesto, and Latifah became a legend. Queen Latifah, an original member of the collective unit, Flavor Unit, cultivated a regal image that matched her moniker. She was beautiful and intelligent, with natural charisma and gregarious nature that made her a star. All Hail the Queen established her voice and vision as a rap original, and the record would become a contemporary classic.
The specter of a sophomore slump would be daunting for any artist, but especially for an artist as young as Latifah, particularly when crafting a follow-up to a seminal album like All Hail the Queen. When approaching her second LP, 1991’s Nature of a Sista’, it’s best to judge the work on its own merits instead of immediately comparing it to its predecessor. A bold and feisty record, Nature of a Sista’ is a strong follow-up that deserves more attention and acclaim than initially given. At its release, Nature of a Sista’ was met with respectful but somewhat muted reviews, as some felt that the album was less ambitious than the groundbreaking All Hail the Queen. A thorough listen to Nature of a Sista’ reveals an impressive collection of songs that show a strong, young talent at her peak.
Throughout the album, there are some recurring themes, namely that Queen Latifah is the baddest rapper and no one can measure up. She reminds listeners repeatedly in several songs of her name. Born Dana Owens, she took on the name Latifah which roughly translates to “delicate, sensitive, and kind”. Pairing her chosen name with the title of Queen illustrates the duality of Latifah’s musical persona: though she’s strong, self-possessed, and confident as a queen, she is also delicate and vulnerable. The duality is what makes Queen Latifah such a captivating artist. She uses her music to dismantle the patriarchy, but she also retains a softness. This complexity makes for wonderful music because she explores different topics on Nature of a Sista’ and the result is a complicated portrait of an intelligent and talented woman with star power.
When reviewing Nature of a Sista’, Alex Henderson from AllMusic opined that Latifah “tends to spend too much time boasting about her microphone skills”. That’s a criticism that other writers expressed in their coverage of the record. But merely dismissing Latifah’s second album as a record brimming with braggadocio is to miss how aspirational and inspirational the rapper’s confidence is. Part of her plan is to elevate and uplift, and it’s through her raps about self-confidence, she emphasizes the importance of celebrating Black excellence and Black female excellence. When Queen Latifah (rightly) asserts herself as the best, she’s not just speaking for herself. She’s speaking for other women who prevail and persist; she speaks for other women who triumph over adversity and patriarchy.
Queen Latifah As Her Own Hype Woman
One couldn’t ask for a better opener than “Latifah’s Had It Up to Here”. A sampled voice introduces listeners with a dynamic “ladies and gentlemen” before Latifah announces that “the Queen is hyped up”. With record scratches, a looping piano, and hearty bass, the teeming sounds blast through the speakers before our Queen’s gutsy vocals punch through the thick production, asserting her majestic place in hip-hop. She refutes any suggestions that celebrity has changed her, assuring that that “fame hasn’t got me / Souped-up, selling out, sloppy or poppy.” Latifah uses her self-created platform to simultaneously boast about her lyricist skills as well as her place as the matriarch of hip-hop.
Though much of Nature of a Sista’ is centered on the rap diva’s prodigious prowess as a rapper, she maintains an intelligence and wit so that she more than has the goods to back up her lofty claims. On tracks like “One Mo’ Time” and “Nuff of the Ruff Stuff”, the Queen lays down her law that she’s the G.O.A.T., but she also takes care to expose her pride as hard-won after hard tribulation. On “Nuff of the Ruff Stuff”, she connects that pride to Black American culture and Black American feminism, locating the love and support of her community as the source of that pride. Even if her songs brag about her prodigious talent, she always maintains a dedication to her crew of friends, honoring her community’s role in her success. In “One Mo’ Time”, Latifah celebrates her friends, noting:
Lovin’ my crew, bringin’ ‘em up
Leadin’ ‘em all to somethin’ great…
I need my brothers and sisters
With me, standing hand to hand
Band to band, we’re off land to land
Buyin’ much property, properly, pronto, please
that’s the only way a Black business starts, you see.
The lyrics highlight how Latifah manages her career, collaborating with artists like Naughty by Nature and nurturing and supporting creatives and projects through her Flavor Unit Entertainment. As highlighted in Talib Kweli’s superb history of East Coast hip-hop, Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story, so much of rap and hip-hop is about community, collaboration, and partnership.
When Queen Latifah appeared in the 1998 dramedy, Living Out Loud, she surprised critics with her singing, portraying a nightclub chanteuse. Later, she would score an Oscar nomination in Rob Marshall’s 2002 film version of the Kander and Ebb musical Chicago. Those successes led Latifah to move away from rapping and focus on singing, putting out a pair of albums devoted to pop, jazz, and soul standards. But it should come as no surprise that Queen Latifah can sing, as she has laced much of her hip-hop work with her easy, lilting croon. Unlike the hard edge of her rapping, her signing is a sigh, lovely and gentle.
On “Give Me Your Love” – an early 1990s En Vogue soundalike – Latifah introduces the starry-eyed romantic side of her personality, miles away from the swaggering amazon of the earlier tracks. Produced by DJ Soulshock, a Danish songwriter/producer who joined Latifah on her European tours, he changes the pace and tone of the album significantly with this track, which samples the charming flute of the Sisters Love’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love (Long Song)”. The song’s use of the sample and overall tenderness will remind listeners of 1970s summer soul songs (even if the production has the technological flourishes of the early 1990s).
The track is an important moment on the record because, as the title implies, the project as a whole is about Queen Latifah’s identity as a Black woman. Though she makes the convincing case that she’s a strong superwoman, she’s also romantic and vulnerable. Having these songs in the sequence shows that these seemingly contradictory notions aren’t conflicting or mutually exclusive.
United Under One Beat
As an artist, Queen Latifah often used her work to promote unity, particularly when it came to race and gender. She came of age when conscious hip-hop was reaching mainstream success, and alternative hip-hop made significant dents on the hip-hop, R&B, and pop charts. So much of her music is about uplift. A song like “Love Again” is an approach to racial strife that looks to the dance floor for a utopia. Similar to Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” or Madonna’s “Vogue”, Latifah’s “Love Again” uses popular music to make a plea for racial harmony. The song is a lament and prayer but imparts its message through an engaging rap-pop dance beat.
The lyrics could be damned as naïve, an unfair criticism given the sincerity in Latifah’s writing and delivery; though only 20 when recording this song, it reflects an older soul, one concerned with the precarious state of the world. The song shows that these concerns plague Latifah’s mind, as she recounts, “I woke up early one morning / Thinking about the country and society I was born in.” She then asks rhetorically, “why’s it so hard to be sisters and brothers” a sentiment that bears repeating as she elevates and valorizes friendship and kinship throughout her music. Latifah muses about racial prejudice, mourning that “I hate when they hate me”, but admitting, “I hate when I hate them”, and then finally concluding, “there wouldn’t be problems if we didn’t create them.”
When she warns that “the time is now to come together / Forever / The time is now to mend and be friends”, it feels hopeful and prescient, especially when looking at the state of racial and gender relations in the United States during and after the album’s release. Just six months earlier, LAPD officers would brutally beat Rodney King during an arrest, and the officers’ acquittal in late April of 1992 would spark the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. The AIDS crisis was near its peak, with infection rates among women increasing more than 63% between 1991 and 1995. A month after Nature of a Sista’s release, a report indicated that University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court nominee, of sexual harassment. Spike Lee captured much of the anxiety of the country’s race relations in his cinema during this period, particularly in his 1989 classic Do the Right Thing and 1991’s Jungle Fever. In this challenging time, Nature of a Sista’ was an astute accompaniment to the strife.
Nature of a Sista’s title track works as a manifesto and campaign speech for Queen Latifah’s agenda. One of the more feminist movements on the album, this urgent song is a stormy onslaught of rhymes, images, and statements. Through a cacophonous funk production that is richly textured and layered with sounds, samples, and voices, Latifah steps up to the metaphorical podium to lay down her platform for musical domination. She sees female-driven rap as the sound and voice of the future, giving props to her contemporaries Salt N Pepa, Yo-Yo, Monie Love, and Nikki D, fellow groundbreaking pioneers who snatched the mic from male MCs and made their mark.