The unparalleled reign of Latifah, hip-hop’s one and only Queen

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Women rappers have always been included in the pantheon of hip-hop’s origin. While many one-hit-wonder female rap artists made contributions to the mixtape of the genre’s genesis, the culture’s essential foundation always stood firmly on the shoulders of a special sextet: Sha-Rock, the first female MC; Roxanne Shanté, the first female rapper to have a hit single; the duo Salt-N-Pepa, the First Ladies of Rap; and MC Lyte, the first female rapper to release a full studio album. And then there’s the one and only Queen of Hip-Hop: Queen Latifah. In honor of 50 years of hip-hop, this appreciation celebrates the contributions of a luminous artist whose myriad talents seem to transcend the genre, but who never does because she always pours her heart and soul right back into it.

The Newark, N.J., native’s 1989 debut album was called “All Hail the Queen.” It simultaneously announced a new era in the genre and that a then-19-year-old named Dana Elaine Owens would be ushering it in. The release contained the single “Ladies First,” a feminist battle cry duet (with British rapper Monie Love) for hip-hop generation’s teen female set, before they even knew they needed one. The message in Queen Latifah’s music empowered women, held men accountable for all ill deeds, and united the universal sisterhood.

Queen Latifah performs at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester in 1990. Dave Shea for The Boston Globe

This inspiring, trailblazing movement even extended to her look. Fashion has always occupied a large vortex in hip-hop culture. So in a sea filled with B-girls in stylish leather jackets, the hottest track suits, jeans, and sneakers, or in Spandex and high-brow designer versions of street gear, with asymmetrical haircuts, Latifah parted the waters by visually establishing herself as royalty. She wore regal headgear and hats that resembled crowns. Her attire showcased her pride in her African heritage and spoke of a dignified woman who was classy and demanded respect. Latifah also unapologetically taught us that full-bodied women could be sexy and desirable back in the 1980s, way before body positivity became a thing (sorry, Lizzo).

Hip-hop trailblazer Queen Latifah performs on the TV special “A Grammy Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop” last month in Los Angeles.Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Her endless chain of hip-hop hits include “Dance for Me,” “Just Another Day,” and “U.N.I.T.Y,” which earned her a Grammy Award for best rap solo performance in 1995. Those songs were featured on albums with titles like “Nature of a Sista,” “Black Reign,” and “Order in the Court.” It was clear there was a message in her music — it was positive and life-affirming. Queen Latifah was a part of the Native Tongues, the Afrocentric, conscious-minded rap collective that included De La Soul, Monie Love, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers. She also mentored new hip-hop talent; it was Latifah who discovered and secured a record deal for Naughty By Nature, whose ‘90s hit singles included “O.P.P.,” “Uptown Anthem,” and the iconic “Hip Hop Hooray.”

Soon we learned Latifah wasn’t just a rapper, but a singer too. The smooth contralto released two albums of jazz covers and standards, “The Dana Owens Album” and “Trav’lin’ Light.” And she blended beautifully with Tony Bennett on “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)” from the “Duets II” album.

Queen Latifah performs with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall in 2017. Though she started out in rap, she went on to release two albums of jazz standards.

But Queen Latifah wasn’t defined by just hip-hop, rap, or music alone. In the ‘80s, buoyed by the success of hip-hop’s mainstream North Star Will Smith, rap artists’ natural next destination was on the small and silver screens. Latifah followed suit, first by making her memorable feature-film debut, in a bit part as an ornery waitress exasperated by interracial relationships in Spike Lee’s 1991 “Jungle Fever.” A flurry of movie and TV roles followed in quick succession including “House Party 2,” “Juice,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which all led to her starring in (and performing the theme song for) her own sitcom, “Living Single.” The series, which debuted in 1993 and ran for five seasons, is often described as the African American precursor to “Friends.” The daughter of schoolteacher Rita Owens and police officer Lancelot Owens Sr., Latifah learned that career longevity meant fully occupying both spaces in the “showbiz” moniker. So once she mastered being on the show, Latifah soon presided over all things on the business side too. She launched Flavor Unit Entertainment with partner Shakim Compere in 1995, and the production company became home to all of her film and television projects.

Queen Latifah has performed in several musicals, including a TV broadcast of “The Wiz Live!”Virginia Sherwood

Queen Latifah’s movies and TV shows during her golden age in Hollywood (1996 to the present day) took her on a whirlwind of high-profile roles that showcased her talent and range as an actress, as a costar to Hollywood’s A-list and in a variety of genres. She’s dazzled in drama (“The Bone Collector,” “Life Support,” “Bessie”), action movies (“Set It Off”), comedy (”Girls Trip,” ”Bringing Down the House,” “Brown Sugar”), children’s fare (the “Ice Age” franchise), and musicals (”The Little Mermaid Live,” “Joyful Noise,” “The Wiz Live!”). Those roles culminated with her portrayal as Matron “Mama” Morton in the screen adaptation of the musical “Chicago,” where Latifah’s scene-stealing performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.

Queen Latifah in “The Equalizer,” her CBS action series.Barbara Nitke/CBS

As the face of CoverGirl (from 2006-16), Latifah proved that Black beauty was easy, breezy, beautiful, and mainstream too. She launched the CoverGirl Queen collection and in 2022 announced she was reuniting with the makeup giant to work with the company on inclusivity behind the scenes. After returning to TV with a stint as host of her very own talker, “The Queen Latifah Show,” she’s now pulling double duty as star and executive producer of the CBS action series “The Equalizer.” Hers is a just-as-gutsy, kick-butt (literally) female TV version of the film franchise that starred Denzel Washington. And she’s never left her music roots. When hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, Queen Latifah honored the culture by spitting rhymes both solo and with her girl power sisterhood (Remi Ma, Yo Yo, Love, Lyte) on CBS’s “A Grammy Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop” broadcast and at Yankee Stadium and Forest Hills Stadium for LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells Festival.

From left: Kennedy Center Honors recipients Renée Fleming, Queen Latifah, Billy Crystal, Barry Gibb, and Dionne Warwick.Tom Brenner/For The Washington Post

These storied accomplishments came with a shower of accolades and awards including an Emmy, a Critics Choice Award, a Golden Globe, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This month she became the first female hip-hop artist to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. But it seemed almost predestined, considering the magnitude of all that she has achieved.

There’s a familiar phrase that usually references a stoic and regal woman of a different generation who resided across the pond. But in pop culture, it applies to another who reigns supreme. It’s Latifah we think of when we say, “Long live the Queen.”

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