Queen Latifah and the Queens
Soulshock helms the house-rap “Bad as a Mutha”, providing the Queen with a club banger, in which, once again, she regales us with rhymes that extoll her excellence. Though Latifah would take more than 30 years to come out, her career would make glancing nods at queer culture. Her music often looked to queer and club culture, and she would embrace and integrate house and dance-pop into her music, often finding her remixes making their way to gay clubs. Her single from All Hail the Queen, “Come Into My House”, was a top ten Billboard dance hit and is a house classic. She also brilliantly essayed the role of Cleo, a queer character in the 1996 F. Gary Gray classic heist film, Set It Off (in which she also appeared on the soundtrack)
Hip-hop and queer culture have had a complicated relationship, despite large amounts of intersectionality between hip-hop and queer culture. The subcultures often found themselves intertwined in the clubs. There are marked similarities in how the two cultures (and the intersections of the two subcultures) used music – dance and party music, in particular – to address societal ills and cultural or political oppression. Though in 1991, we would not have an out rapper, rap, and hip-hop that has been filtered through a queer-house lens found great popularity among queer audiences, particularly urban queer communities.
Keeping up with the 120-130 bpm, Latifah’s vocals move in smooth sync with the percussion. She pays homage to her gay fans by introducing the song with “Some like to vogue,” acknowledging her queer audiences as she joyfully draws her listeners to the dance floor. Though an album cut, the echoes of “Bad as a Mutha” can be heard in contemporary house-rap songs like RuPaul’s “Call Me Mother” or Azealia Banks’ “The Big Big Beat”. That’s particularly true when Latifah starts to spit two-part rhymes on top of the stacking beats, building a vocal tower of blocks.
The album’s closer, “How Do I Love Thee”, is another club track, an experimental track that features soft vocals that hew closer to spoken word poetry than rap. It’s a sexually adventurous track that bears striking similarities to some of Madonna’s early 1990s work (especially “Justify My Love”). It’s a strange song, one that sounds tailor-made for dance clubs. There are jungle rhythms, hot jazz sax, and heavy breathing, as Latifah practically purrs the sensual lyrics. The sexual candor is bracing, and Latifah’s point of view is that of a woman instructing her lover on what she craves; it’s a brilliant, slightly eccentric song that is a seeming perfect end to the album. Though she’s one of the most influential rappers of her generation, her impact on dance music should not be underestimated, either. Some of her most devoted fans are queer audiences who responded positively to her dance material.
The Queen and MTV
“Fly Girl” was the first single off Nature of a Sista’, and it’s easy to see why Latifah’s label chose the song because it’s a fantastic rap-soul number that features the then-trendy, state-of-the-art New Jack Swing production. The lyrics are playful, cheeky, and assured as she works to dismantle prevailing gender politics. There’s a clever call-and-response with male harmony vocals who engage with Latifah in some back-and-forth as she stands her ground and asserts her dignity. “Fly Girl” feels like a classic Queen Latifah song, one that epitomizes her sound best.
Though the lyrics are forceful and uncompromising, her delivery is smooth, not infused with the hard-edged bluster of the other tracks on the album. When she schools wayward men on their boorish behavior, she allows her voice to glide slickly over the beats, her evenness belying such tart lyrics like,
Tell me why is it when I walk past the guys
I always hear, yo baby?
I mean, like what’s the big deal?
I’m a queen, ‘nuff respect
Treat me like a lady
And, no, my name ain’t yo and I ain’t got your baby
So much of art is aspirational and inspirational, so when Latifah insists that she’s a “queen”, she’s speaking for every woman who is faced with the indignity of catcalling and leering looks in public. She sneers dismissively at the guys who ogle her, pointing out, “Walk in the door, and now I’m on the menu.”
Because the song was the album’s first single, it was released with a music video that reinforced the notion of Queen Latifah as a visual performer. As a recording artist, Queen Latifah came of age during what could be considered MTV’s golden age. Artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Whitney Houston took advantage of this medium to promote their works, creating mini-movies to score their pop hits. Rap and hip-hop artists also looked to MTV to reach wider audiences. Though the channel was slow at first to showcase Black performers, citing that the channel’s original concept was to focus on rock acts, so programmers claimed it was difficult to find Black rock acts to include in rotation. It took Michael Jackson’s innovative video work to force a change that would eventually the channel’s remit widen to have pop, R&B, rap, and dance artists, as well. Ultimately, Black performers like Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston prevailed and would go on to dominate MTV, their videos becoming events.
Rap and hip-hop earned a platform on MTV during the genre’s golden age when, in 1987, Yo! MTV Raps premiered on MTV Europe before launching a year later in the States. The show celebrated hip-hop culture and rap music and introduced artists like LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, and De La Soul to wider audiences, including international viewers. The program had a massive influence on pop culture and, in particular, bringing Black artists to the forefront of pop culture. Millions of viewers could watch videos by artists that may have been dismissed as niche, and these views would translate into record sales. The artists would not only have their videos played on the air, but they would visit the studio, giving interviews and performing live in the studio. That established themselves not only as recording artists or live performers but engaging entertainers who were appealing and charming, able to parlay their charisma into a more fully-rounded celebrity. Artists like LL Cool J, Will Smith, DJ Jazzy, and Queen Latifah herself would prove to be captivating personalities.
So MTV was a perfect fit for Latifah, even though she defied some of the traditional standards of cishet beauty. She was (and is) beautiful, but she did not have the lean, fashion model-like physique of some of the popular female figures on MTV. Nor was her music capitalizing on her femininity and sexuality. Hip-hop videos sometimes featured female backup dancers who were clad in thin, skimpy outfits, and often they were served as backdrops to the (usually) male hip-hop stars who were front-and-center.
But Latifah was different. In her videos, she wore suits and stunning headgear. In “Fly Girl”, the video begins with the striking contrast of black and red imagery as quick shots reveal alternating panels, full shots of dancers, and Latifah herself, resplendent in an emerald kufi hat and matching suit, taking hold of the mic to perform the lyrics. As she’s miming to the track, her face is open and smiling, her gregarious nature translating beautifully through the TV selection. In closeups, as she sings the chorus with the beseeching male vocals, she mugs a bit, grinning and winking cheekily into the camera, fully possessing an electric star quality. There are no special effects, flashing imagery, and the choreography is limited only to the backup dancers. The relatively low-key and subtle approach to the video allows viewers to bask in the warm glow of Latifah’s natural charm.
All Hail the Queen
After Nature of a Sista’, Queen Latifah left Tommy Boy Records. She signed on to the legendary Motown label for her third album, 1993’3 Black Reign, which sold over 500,000 copies and won Latifah a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 1995 ceremony. The rapper also branched out into television, starring in the sitcom Living Single, which ran on the Fox network for five seasons. She would then embark on a stunning multi-media career as an entrepreneur, actress, comedienne, talk show host, and author. After the success of Black Reign, she waited five years before returning with the excellent Order in the Court, a record that explored urban-alternative and alternative-rap sounds. Later, after the critical acclaim of Chicago, she released a pair of jazz-pop albums before returning to hip-hop on Persona in 2009, her last studio LP.
Though she has never commented that she has left music and performs regularly, it appears that her film, television, and business ventures have taken precedence over her music. Nature of a Sista’ is an integral part of the legacy and influence of this pioneering artist. It’s been unfairly sidelined in favor of her explosive debut album as well as the commercial breakthrough of Black Reign, but it stands proudly alongside those albums. It highlights the brilliance, intellectualism, and ambition of a dazzling original.