Queen Latifah on 'Trav'lin' Light'

Songs from 'Trav'lin' Light'

Queen Latifah

hide captionQueen Latifah at a recent performance on NBC's The Today Show.

Dana Owens, also known as "Queen Latifah," continues to experience tremendous success as an award-winning rapper, actress and songstress. The New Jersey-native talks about her new jazz and soul album Trav'lin' Light and what's next on her agenda.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

So you think you know Queen Latifah?

(Soundbite of song, "U.N.I.T.Y.")

QUEEN LATIFAH (Singer, Rapper, Actress): Here we go. U-N-I-T-Y. You got to let him know. U-N-I-T-Y, that's a unity. Here we go.

MARTIN: Well, maybe you don't.

(Soundbite of song, "Trav'lin Light")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) No one can see I'm free as the breeze…

MARTIN: That is from her new CD "Trav'lin Light," which is being release next week. Queen Latifah, Dana Owens, joins us now from our New York bureau.

Hello, my queen.

QUEEN LATIFAH: When you put it like that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUEEN LATIFAH: I mean, when you put it that way - hey, Michel.

MARTIN: How are you?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I'm great. I'm great.

MARTIN: Well, now, most people think of you as a rapper turned singer. But, in fact, you're a singer turned rapper. Is that not correct? Didn't you sing in high school?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yup. Singer turned rapper turned singer.

MARTIN: And maybe most people didn't use to know that you could sing, but they certainly know you can sing since you starred in the film version of "Chicago."

QUEEN LATIFAH: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Was that part of you were attracted to that, was a chance to get back to the singing?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Absolutely. Absolutely. Anytime I got a chance to do a movie that really has some meat to it, and I was able to flex those kind of muscles to be able to sing or sing, dance and act, it's an opportunity to, you know, really share your gifts and show what you have. And you don't get to do that too often.

MARTIN: But that sounds like just a grueling schedule, and you got to get the dancing done, and you got to really push it out. And you've got a very strong stage presence, but you don't have the heaviest voice. And I wonder, when you take on a project like that, are there additional things you have to do to get ready to put yourself in that place?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, one thing you have to do, I mean, when you do a musical is completely different than recording, you know a singing album like "The Dana Owens Album" or like "Trav'lin Light" or a rap album. I actually like rehearsing. And when you do a musical like that, you usually doing about two weeks of dancing, two weeks of singing, two weeks of acting. You know, six-week of rehearsals altogether. And it just kind of tunes you up. You know, you feel sharp, like, you're ready to go.

MARTIN: There's a line from your - one of your main signature songs in that film that I have adopted as my own. I'm going to play a little bit.

(Soundbite of song, "When You're Good to Mama")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Got a little motto. Always sees me through. When you're good to mama, mama's good to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I suspect I'm not the only person who has adopted that as a…

QUEEN LATIFAH: You know, I'm sure you have.

MARTIN: Yeah.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Definitely not the only one. Maybe a few guys, too. You know? See?

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUEEN LATIFAH: It's funny how I wind up strangely singing that song at a piano bar on Mykanos a few weeks ago. There just happened to be a piano bar, and they were singing songs from "Hairspray" and "Chicago." And my friends all pushed me up there and made me, like, sing the song. Of course, I'd been sipping a little bit.

MARTIN: I was going to say, had - was there a perhaps a beverage involved or two?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah. Or four. And but it was a lot of fun, and everybody in the whole place, you know, knew that song. They just love that part.

(Soundbite of song, "When You're Good to Mama")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) So what's the one conclusion I can bring this number to? When you're good to mama, mama's good to you. Ah, yeah.

MARTIN: You mentioned "The Dana Owens Album," and I think we should say that "Trav'lin Light" is not your first foray into jazz and soul. And you have some very nice reviews for your covers, like your take on Al Green's "Simply Beautiful."

QUEEN LATIFAH: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I was just wondering why you decided to title that album using your given name, Dana Owens, and then to go back to Queen Latifah for this album? Are you feeling different things when you work under each name?

QUEEN LATIFAH: You know, for me, it's always been Queen Latifah. But that one I called "The Dana Owens Album" because I wanted people to know that this was in me from the beginning. And this was in me for a long time before you got to know me as the rapper, before you got to know me as the actor.

I watch musicals on TV growing up, and, you know, I love singing these kinds of songs. And I love some of the lyrics styling that was done, you know, back in the '40s and '50s and '60s and '70s. So I touched upon it, but the singer was already in there, just needed a chance to, you know, give back to the roots, so to speak.

(Soundbite of song, "Simply Beautiful")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) What about the way you love me?

Mr. AL GREEN (Singer): (Singing) What about the way you love me?

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Oh, and what about the way you love me?

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) What about the way you love me?

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) oh, what about the way you squeeze me?

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) What about the way you squeeze me?

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) You're simply beautiful, yeah, yeah.

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) Beautiful.

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: When you do a project like "Trav'lin Light," are you doing it for yourself because that's something you want to experience, or are you talking to someone in particular?

QUEEN LATIFAH: No. I'm definitely doing it for, I mean, I'm doing it, of course, for myself because I enjoy doing it. But it's, I mean, it's definitely something I want to share and that I want people to receive and enjoy. It's not, you know, I don't just do music just to keep it all to myself. You know, I want people to, you know, hear it and hopefully enjoy it.

(Soundbite of song, "Trav'lin Light")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) I'm traveling light because my man has gone.

You know, there's this melancholiness about it. It's kind of sad, but it's not. It's sort of happy in a way. It's, you know, she's feeling the breeze and, you know, she's feeling her freedom at the same time that she's feeling a loss of a lover.

(Soundbite of song "Trav'lin Light")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) He said goodbye and took my heart away.

To me, those kind of songs are quite reflective of life, and too often, we just hear the downtrodden sides of it all. I didn't quite realize how, you know, when you look at the whole composition of the album that it would just pretty much all become like that. But it just started to feel like the things I was gravitating towards were really kind of mellow songs. So rather than, you know, pump up the second half with a bunch of, sort of hyper songs to bring a different energy, I decided to just go with what was feeling good, because what we were recording were sounding really good. "Georgia Rose" just sounded beautiful.

MARTIN: And you got Stevie Wonder…

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah…

MARTIN: …to help you out?

QUEEN LATIFAH: …and I was able to get Stevie Wonder on that track, which just sealed the deal for me.

MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit of "Georgia Rose."

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah. Let's do that. That's my favorite song on the album, actually.

(Soundbite of song, "Georgia Rose")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Georgia Rose, Georgia Rose, you're the most precious rose Dixie grows, though it don't seem quite right, 'cause your skin's dark as night.

MARTIN: Mm, mm, mm. Mm…

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yeah, that song is deep right there.

MARTIN: How does that work? Is it - you're just a big cheese Oscar nominee, and call up Stevie Wonder and say, hey, can you bring your harmonica? You have collaborations, not just the only one. You got Christian McBride, Joe Sample, George Duke. How did that happen?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, I got some awesome producers, first of all, and they assembled a crack team of superstar musicians for me. But, you know, the Stevie Wonder idea, we were all in the studio recording a song and Tommy LiPuma, who produced it, was there. And I thought to Tommy, the original has a saxophone solo on it. And I said, you know, it would be kind of cool if we put a harmonica solo on that track instead of the sax. And he was like, yeah, that could be a really cool idea, you know, which was good for me, because I got his approval and the idea itself. And then I thought it be great if we can get Stevie Wonder to do it. And he's going, yeah, that would really be hot.

(Soundbite of music)

QUEEN LATIFAH: My A&R jumped on it, but then I ran into him at a restaurant two days later in California and I dropped the bug in his ear about, you know, that they'd be reaching out for him and he actually told me about a song that he might like me to do, one of his songs. And I'm, like, cool. It's all good. Do you know what I mean? And he was there within a week, and he was leaving for a month-long tour the next day, so I really, really scored getting him in studio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUEEN LATIFAH: My fortune could not be better. God was shining on me.

(Soundbite of song "Georgia Rose")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Georgia Rose, Georgia Rose, don't be blue 'cause your black, Georgia Rose.

MARTIN: As a rapper, part of your message was don't put me down. I'm not here to be the object of, you know, profanity. I'm not here to be just a sex object. I have my own agenda. You know, notice me too. I'm standing on my own ground. And I was just intrigued when you switched to a different genre, whether that was something you wanted to be sure to carry forward, or is that just what you were drawn to?

QUEEN LATIFAH: You know, as a rapper, I was definitely trying to make a statement, you know, with my image, you know, with my words, with my ideas about things. And because I felt like, first of all, there were already like male-bashing female rappers out there, and I didn't need to become the next male-bashing female rapper.

But I definitely needed to make a statement about how I wanted to be perceived, and also to kind of empower my sisters. That's how I felt. I mean, I felt like, I mean, I can't tell you to not do this and that if my house is not even clean. So in my mind, my house was being a female, and looking at what females, you know, what our choices were and how, you know, we needed to work on our self-esteem. And that's why I made songs like "Ladies First."

(Soundbite of song, "Ladies First")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Who said that the ladies couldn't make it? You must be blind. If you don't believe, well here, listen to this rhyme. Ladies first, there's no time to rehearse. I'm divine and my mind expands throughout the universe. A female rapper with the message to send that Queen Latifah is a perfect specimen.

Ms. MONIE LOVE (Rapper): (Rapping) My sister, can I get some?

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Sure, Monie Love, grab the mic and get dumb.

Ms. LOVE: (Rapping) Yo, praise me not …

QUEEN LATIFAH: When I kind of crossed over to this, you know, I'm a grown woman now. I was a young lady back then. I started rapping when I was 17, 18, and I've been around the block a few times. I realized that things aren't as simple as they seem. I still want to be judged for my intelligence and then all my, you know, everything else that comes along with it. I still want to be looked at as smart and beautiful, not just, you know, pretty face and, you know, a body.

MARTIN: And a body.

QUEEN LATIFAH: But definitely for my intelligence, but I think I've kind of earned that at this point.

MARTIN: "Trav'lin Light" is a very, I don't know word I would use - soothing, listening experience. Can I tell you there's one song I cannot get out of my head now.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Let me guess.

MARTIN: …let - go ahead. Guess.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Could it be "Livin' Till I Die"?

MARTIN: No. I'm going to play it for you.

(Soundbite of song, "Poetry Man")

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUEEN LATIFAH: "Poetry Man."

(Soundbite of song "Poetry Man")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Your eyes they light the night. They look right through me, la, la, la, la. You bashful boy. You're hiding something sweet, please give it to me, yeah. Oh, talk to me some more. You don't have to go. You're the Poetry Man, you make things all rhyme, yeah, yeah…

MARTIN: I can't get it out of my head.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Yay!

MARTIN: How do you feel about it? Why do you pick this one?

QUEEN LATIFAH: You know, I always loved that song. My mother played that song so much in my house growing up. It was, I mean, that song just reminds me of Saturday mornings, cleaning up, getting laundry ready, making my bed, incense burning, house smelling fresh, sunshine through the window. You know, it's just, that was my mom's vibe, and so I can't remember exactly how the idea came up to do it. But I say I got to ask my mom about this song, because I'm like this is my mama's song. I can't just mess with this song, now. So…

MARTIN: And, you know, but Phoebe Snow's version is so well known, too. I just wondered what that's like when you're covering a song where the bar has already been set so high, particularly by the writer, I mean.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Right.

MARTIN: How is that?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Well, first of all, I don't try to do what they did. I kind of just stay in my lane. I think it's very important to do what you do well, not to - and that's with anything I do. I try to do what La can do, what Dana can do, not what Phoebe does because she made it perfect. The song is perfect as it is. I just happen to love the song. So I only recorded it because I really love it, and it's kind of an ode to my mom, a little dedication. And I kind of have that happening on each album now. The last album, it was "Hello, Stranger" and "Hard Times." Those were her songs on that album.

MARTIN: Do you have any more to say in rap? Do you think there's another rap album in you?

QUEEN LATIFAH: Oh, man, I got plenty of stuff to say. I mean, I still have a bunch of records that I've recorded through the years since that last album came out. I kind of - I guess I might have thought that someone else would have came along and took the reigns. And, you know, not that I was looking for someone to take my place, but I surely expected that, you know, when Lauryn came out, that there would be other people who came out and kind of said something. I don't think anybody has really said a whole lot consistently about a lot, you know, a lot of substantial stuff. I mean, it's not like every one of my records was some, you know, message record.

There was a lot of bragging and boasting in there, but at the same time, there was a lot of social consciousness and just positivity and wrapped in the guise of a hot record. I'm not saying don't make hardcore records, but let's get a balance. Let's support, you know, artists who are really challenging themselves musically and blending the genres and, you know, doing different things. That's the only way you really expand the music and let kids who are in love with hip-hop know that it's okay to try something new. How else do you think you would get a Lauryn Hill?

MARTIN: All right.

QUEEN LATIFAH: If she didn't take the chance on the music and do it differently, if The Fugees didn't do it differently, it never would have happened. And…

MARTIN: So you see another rap album coming from you?

QUEEN LATIFAH: I mean, it could. I would never, you know, with me, you got to expect the unexpected. There's no telling what I'm going to do. You know, you just got to be ready for whatever this girl is going to come up with next because, you know, I'm always, you know that, I'm always cooking with gas. There's always something in there.

MARTIN: Dana Owens, Queen Latifah joined us from our New York bureau. Her new album is "Trav'lin Light." It'll be available next week.

My Queen, thank you so much.

QUEEN LATIFAH: Thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) I'm gonna live till I die. I'm gonna laugh…

MARTIN: I should mention you can hear more tracks from Queen Latifah's new CD "Trav'lin Light" by visiting our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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