Queen Latifah, "Persona" (Flavor Unit Records)
There's nobody quite like Queen Latifah, the rough-edged rapper turned jazz singer and Oscar-nominated actress. On her new CD, "Persona," Latifah goes back to the roots that made her so unique in the first place.
The album is an enjoyable mix of singing and rapping, produced by hip-hop hitmakers Cool & Dre and featuring cameos from the likes of Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, Busta Rhymes and Marsha Ambrosius. The style ranges from straight-up hip-hop to mid-tempo R&B to breathless techno, with a mercifully light sprinkle of the obligatory Autotune effects.
Latifah has sung on two previous albums, and her voice is capable, comparable to most of the women populating today's charts (She's no Jennifer Hudson, but who is?). Singles like "Cue the Rain," "My Couch" and "With You" are body-moving tales of the type of hothouse love that blooms on the dance floor, while "People" with Mary J. Blige and "The World" tackle more weighty topics.
Her singing occasionally get submerged beneath Cool & Dre's dense instrumentals, and on a few songs it's tough to differentiate Latifah from her guest singers. When she raps, though, everything changes.
Latifah still has the punch and wordplay of the woman who broke into entertainment more than 20 years ago as the rare female rapper who captured attention with skills instead of sex. On her new album, you recognize within the first few bars of "The Light" or "Over the Mountain" that Latifah is on the mic.
Latifah's rap voice demands attention the way her presence does on screen. That's not usually the case with her singing. So big up to Latifah for continuing to expand her talents — and for not forgetting where she came from.
CHECK THIS TRACK OUT: "Over the Mountain" is a revealing glimpse into Latifah's personal thoughts, featuring rugged raps and a chorus that almost takes flight.