Classic Albums: 'Black Reign' by Queen Latifah

Classic Albums: 'Black Reign' by Queen Latifah

Published Fri, March 18, 2022 at 2:00 PM EDT

She'd emerged at the end of the 1980s and became one of Hip-Hop's most visible women. Her first two albums cemented her status at a time when women were on the rise in rap; and appearances in films like "Jungle Fever," "House Party 2" and "Juice" had set her on the path to Hollywood stardom. But in 1992, Queen Latifah's world was rocked forever...

Her brother Lance Owens, a policeman in East Orange, N.J., was killed in an off-duty accident when his motorcycle collided with a car while he was making a turn. Born Dana Owens, she and her brother Lance (aka "Winki") loved riding, and his death shook her to the core. “I was supposed to be with him that day on the motorcycle, but one of my friends had to move, so we were moving all day,” she explained to Angie Martinez in 2019. “After my brother passed away, that ruined my world. It rocked me to my core. I’ve never been the same since.”

Her 1991 album Nature Of A Sista hadn't been as successful as her debut All Hail the Queen, and even that album had failed to land Latifah a gold certification. Salt-N-Pepa was enjoying platinum sales, but no solo female artist in Hip-Hop had ever seen a gold-selling album. ...Sista had featured Latifah pushing into R&B and house music territory; sounds that she'd dabbled in on her first album, but now critics were saying that she'd made a watered-down, crossover-focused project. Of course, record sales and reviews were the furthest thing from her mind, as she looked to pick up the pieces after the death of her beloved Winki.

Things were pulling her in a myriad of directions. On top of grieving the loss of her brother, Latifah had been offered a new TV show. A sitcom about four friends living together in New York City, Living Single was new territory for the fledgling actress, but she'd agreed to join the cast which also included TV veterans Kim Fields (The Facts Of Life), Kim Coles (In Living Color) and Erika Alexander (The Cosby Show).

Clearly, Hollywood was calling.

But Latifah was still very focused on her day job of being one of the most prolific women in Hip-Hop. And on the music front, change was on the horizon. She'd made the move from Tommy Boy to Motown Records, giving her career a fresh start at the iconic label; and she'd also revamped Flavor Unit as a brand. Since 1991, what had begun as simply a Hip-Hop crew had evolved into a full-fledged management and entertainment company. She wasn't just making records anymore; she was now making moves.

After my brother passed away, that ruined my world. It rocked me to my core. I’ve never been the same since.”

- Queen Latifah (2019)

On Nature Of A Sista, Latifah hadn't worked very much with her former musical mentor, Mark "The 45 King." He'd been the guiding light for the Flavor Unit in the early days, but his drug abuse and indifference led to Latifah moving on to work with Soulpower Productions, known for more club-friendly sounds. As she began work on her third album, Latifah went to producers who had a grittier sound. This wasn't going to be an R&B album.

With death and detractors whirling around her, Queen Latifah set about delivering her most assured album. Some had believed that she couldn't deliver the goods without Mark the 45 King, that she'd gone too musically soft and that Hollywood now had her focus.

Album opener "Black Hand Side" made it clear that Queen Latifah was going a bit more street this time around. Produced by S.I.D., Latifah's aggressive flow and the F. Gary Gray-directed music video matches the spirit of so much East Coast rap circa 1993, as the rapper seems intent on reminding anyone of her hardcore bonafides.

The album's hardcore spirit bears close resemblance to what Heavy D attempted on his 1992 album Blue Funk. On that project, the erstwhile Overweight Lover sought to revamp his sound to match a harder sensibility than the new jack swing-driven pop rap he'd previously been known for. On Black Reign, Latifah also makes herself at home in serious boom bap territory; this is not the sound of an established emcee "going gangsta" to fit then-current trends, however. On the contrary, it's more like the sound of her re-centering her ever-present street sensibilities while maintaining the persona fans had come to know.

Posse cut "Rough" gives her a chance to showcase her lyrical skills in a free-for-all that includes Heavy, Treach of Naughty By Nature and none other than KRS-One. Treach, himself affiliated with Latifah and the Flavor Unit since Naughty was called "The New Style," shows up again on "Coochie Bang," a safe sex anthem with a hook that works way better than it should. "Superstar" is a should've been single and one of the album's highlights; as Latifah admonishes would-be suitors who get intimidated by her status and image. Another production from S.I.D., it highlights how effortless their chemistry is throughout the project.

"Just Another Day" is one of the best singles of Queen Latifah's career; an underappreciated gem that sounds like walking through your neighborhood on a Saturday morning.

S.I.D. flips Herb Alpert's "Making Love In the Rain" for this subdued, soulful track about the love of your community. Latifah is reflective and real, as she wistfully examines the violence and shouts-out the love of her neighborhood; while also providing the song's breezy R&B hook. It's one of the album's strongest moments, though the song underperformed as a single. "Just Another Day" only reached no. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1994, though it remained on the chart for 11 weeks.

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Latifah had taken a lot of flak for the abundance of singing on Nature Of A Sista, but it's always been part of her musical repertoire. Even before she released her critically-acclaimed vocal jazz albums, Latifah made it clear that she liked to sing. Popular singles like "Come Into My House" and even "Ladies First" featured Queen Latifah singing her own hooks. Artists like the Force M.D.'s and Whodini and melded rap and R&B a decade earlier, but Latifah was doing it at a time when that was fairly unusual for rappers, oftentimes preoccupied with maintaining credibility without "selling out" to R&B tastes.

"I've always done it," Latifah said in 1993 about her singing. "I've wanted to do it more. But I've wanted to do it in the right way. And if I can't do it in the right way, then I'd rather not do it. 'Cause I'm not your raised-in-a-church, can-do-anything-with-her- voice type of singer. I'm a soulful, smoothed-out, vibey kind of person."

"Black Reign" may have a more muted approach to R&B than Latifah's sophomore album had, but her affinity for genre-bending (and genre-blending) is still present.

Critics could still find room to criticize Latifah's R&B flavors. "It’s a curious twist of fate that Latifah had established herself so well as the woman who takes no shit from the fellas that many of her fans were very unprepared to hear her croon on singles like 'Weekend Love,'” Steve "Flash" Juon of RapReviews wrote in 2021. "I even remember hearing people say that she had crossed over or sold out by making such blatant overtures to R&B and the club, although in retrospect it feels more like a reggae crossover track thanks to the patois chattah courtesy of Tony Rebel. I’d still rather hear Dana Owens rap than sing..."

And then, there was the matter of Roxanne Shante...

There'd been rumors of bad blood between Shante and other women in Hip-Hop ever since the Dee Barnes-hosted event "Sisters In the Name of Rap." That concert special aired on FOX in early 1992, featuring Latifah, Shante and several other noteworthy women in Hip-Hop. But there was talk that Shante felt disrespected by some of the other women on-hand. Those rumors were given credence when she aired her frustrations in a scathing diss song called "Big Mama," where she took aim at MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Monie Love and Latifah.

First up, there's Latifah/ You roll up, and I'ma smoke that ass like reefer/ Cause you ain't never in life been a star to me/ Sold the fuck out, tryna go R&B/ Now that shit is shady/ You say ladies first, well I'm the FIRST lady/ And all y'all hoes are phoney/ Try to get flipped? I'ma rip you and your girl Monie..."

- Roxanne Shante, "Big Mama"

The diss was almost a year and a half old before Latifah responded. On the first verse of the Tony Dofat-produced "Can't Understand," the Jersey rhymer makes it clear that she isn't backing down from anyone, not even a woman that laid the groundwork for women in Hip-Hop. Over an inspired Ray Bryant sample, Latifah goes after Shante, declaring "your career is through" and warning her that "next time, there might not be no talkin,'" without mentioning her by name.

The Kay Gee-produced "U.N.I.T.Y." is the album's most famous moment. The song became Latifah's signature song and earned her a Grammy Award in 1995, and it was born of the rapper's frustrations with the misogyny in so many of her male peers' music.

"Well, it’s pretty detrimental to me," she told Entertainment Weekly. "That’s why I wrote (the song) ”U.N.I.T.Y.” And it’s (gone) gold, so I’m clearly not the only one tired of hearing black women being referred to as bitches and ho’s. I mean, when I was coming up, being called a bitch was fighting words. And now it’s so common. It bothers me."

The song has been alternately heralded as an anthem and derided as messagey hokum, but it's one of the landmark moments in Latifah's career; a sort of "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." for the 1990s that arrived on the heels of Death Row's ascension and the mainstreaming of "bitches ain't shit" sentiments via the success of albums like The Chronic. Latifah's song is as blunt as it is necessary, even if some folks may dismiss the fingerwagging. The song tackles everything from abuse to an unnamed adversary (rumored to be Midwest gangsta rapper Boss) in the final verse; and Latifah witnessed the power of "U.N.I.T.Y." when the song was new.

"We perform this song every night," she said in 1994. "It doesn't just rock the women, it rocks the men. For some reason, a picture is painted that all men are nothing but negative brothers who don't care about women, who always disrespect us. That's just not true. Every night when we do that song, we definitely give a shout out to all the positive brothers in the house, make 'em make some noise and raise their hands and show everybody, look, they are here, and there are people who will come to your aid if you need it."

The album closer "Winki's Theme" is a jazz-inspired, mournful song that encapsulates her grief at the loss of her beloved brother. Even as her career was beginning to branch out into the high-profile, multi-hyphenated force that she would soon become known as, Lance Jr's death had driven her into depression and addiction. She'd taken to smoking weed constantly, and she was drinking heavily. Friends like Heavy D and soul legend Patti LaBelle helped intervene to get her back on track.

“I had a problem,” Latifah explained in 2019. “I would drink every day. I would smoke every day, and I needed to stop getting wasted.”

With Black Reign, despite all of the turmoil, Latifah's focus was undeniable. She'd gone into her third album with one goal: consistency.

"Not in terms of style of music, but it just had to jell," she said in 1994. "I mean, I'm always the type that's going to give different flavors, different styles, different forms. But the only intention I ever had with this one was to make an album full of singles."

Her focus, in spite of everything, paid off. Released near the end of 1993, Black Reign would become the first rap album by a solo female artist to go gold. In 1995, "U.N.I.T.Y." made Queen Latifah the second female rapper to earn a Grammy (Salt-N-Pepa won the award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group on the same night for their hit "None Of Your Business.") The success of Black Reign was on the front end of what would become a major run for women in 90s Hip-Hop: MC Lyte would see her most high-profile commercial success via singles like 1993s "Ruffneck," as Da Brat would become the first solo female rapper to have a platinum album six months after ...Reign with her debut album Funkdafied. Salt-N-Pepa's Very Necessary (released just a month prior to ...Reign) would sell five million copies en route to becoming the best-selling rap album ever by a female artist.

For Queen Latifah, Black Reign would be the album that answered her critics and restored her commercial luster; but it was also her final album before her ever-broadening Hollywood portfolio took center stage. By the time she released a follow-up, 1998s Order In the Court, her acting resume was beginning to eclipse her rap successes. That album would fare poorly commercially, and Queen Latifah wouldn't release another rap album until 2009s Persona.

But in 1994, she was in a moment. The pain of Lance's death, the pressure of switching labels and the pleasure of seeing her hard work come to fruition had all been a part of the story surrounding her third album. It's a testament to, not only her vision as an artist, but her fortitude as a person and the depths of her experiences as a woman.

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