Artists regularly get questioned about their love for the music when their acting careers flourish, but for established double-threat Queen Latifah [click to read], it’s the other way around. Don’t get it twisted: timeless records like “Wrath Of My Madness” and “U.N.I.T.Y.” showcased how her passionate delivery and uplifting, insightful lyrics embodied what Hip Hop is all about. But once her acting career grew to Academy Award nominations and box office hits like Chicago and Bringing Down The House, it was clear that Queen Latifah didn’t need Rap as a vocation anymore. Her last rap album, Order In The Court, dropped in 1998, and she dropped two Jazz albums within the decade that followed. So even though Queen Latifah’s new record Persona may not have the urgency of her earlier records, it would seem like the music is purely for artistic expression. And that freedom serves as this album’s fuel, and as its downfall.
The cover art for Persona plays on the tired multiple-personality ploy, but listening to the album brings context to such a concept. Latifah is having fun here, literally doing whatever she wants musically: “The Light” and “Long Ass Week” see her spitting the relevant rhymes she’s known for: she uses the former to teach her listeners how to follow their dreams to success, while the latter urges people to play just as hard as they work. But elsewhere, songs like “Fast Car” and “Cue The Rain” are as Pop-y as anything in the Top 40. Latifah’s versatility on this record is a plus and a minus: it’s usually a good thing when you can listen to a record from beginning to end and not know what to expect, and these are potential hits. But they are hits because of how easily digestible they are, not because of how memorable they are. She sounds like she’s having fun, but that she isn’t necessarily focused on making music with a purpose on all of these. At many times here, it doesn’t feel like Queen Latifah is even behind the mic: many of the non-rapping songs sound like they can be duplicated by someone else, and they lack the authenticity and personality that has defined her career as a musician, actor, and entertainer.
Not all of it is attributed to Latifah herself, though. Cool & Dre [click to read] produced 12 of the disc’s 14 songs, so they hold just as much responsibility for Persona as she does. Their use of electronic vocal effects is deplorable, especially considering how smooth Latifah’s natural voice is. But otherwise, the Miami, Flordia duo took this unconventional opportunity to regain the steam they had a few years ago. They keep Persona equally cohesive and engaging by utilizing their signature synths in different contexts. Despite them not being for the Hip Hop or jazz audiences that love her, these would fit in perfectly with a crop of other poppy numbers, and Cool & Dre should walk away with more work after this. The Neptunes [click to read] contribute the Reggae-tinged “If He Wanna,” which is another one of the few undeniably sincere songs on the album.
Queen Latifah still has the rap talents that she showed a decade ago, and she still has the vocal abilities she’s displayed over the past few years. Hopefully, her next effort will see her focusing those talents with the passion that makes her successful. Like her image on All Hail The Queen exactly 20 years ago, Lah shows no shame in playing into trends of style both in music and in style, but it is forever her good heart and sincerity that makes those 20 years possible.