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QUEEN LATIFAH (Buy CDs by this artist)
All Hail the Queen (Tommy Boy) 1989
Nature of a Sista' (Tommy Boy) 1991
Black Reign (Motown) 1993
Order in the Court (Motown) 1998

Living Single made Queen Latifah far better known as a sitcom star than she ever was as a rapper, and that was before she became a movie star and a daily talk show host, meting out advice and sympathy rather than rhymes and beats. Her output as a musician has, not surprisingly, dropped off significantly. And that's something we should talk about.

An influential and inspiring figure of wisdom and serenely forceful skills, Latifah (Newark — born Dana Owens) began her recording career with the feminist positivity and old-school sound of the generally wonderful All Hail the Queen. The communally spirited debut contains "Ladies First" featuring Monie Love, "Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children" featuring De La Soul and "The Pros" featuring Stetsasonic star Daddy-O.

Nature of a Sista' is overly ambitious and wildly uneven, largely due to a disorganized troop of studio guides. While Naughty by Nature, Luis Vega and K-Cut modernize her hip-hop, respectively, on "Latifah's Had It Up 2 Here" (which isn't as belligerent as all that), the busy, intense title track and the dancehall bop of "Sexy Fancy," SoulShock and CutFather lamely attempt to remake her as a full-service R&B performer. Tracks on which she delivers messages of unity, romance and hip-hop theory as semi-ept soul singing are so heinous and unsuitable that they sully the genuinely fine tracks. (The star doesn't help at all with the self-produced sextasy shmaltz of "How Do I Love Thee.") Although Latifah rides it all out with articulate passion and dignity — the "doo-doo stain" put-down of "Sexy Fancy" is uncharacteristically immature — Nature of a Sista' is not a feather in her crown.

Latifah doesn't cut back on the melodic ambitions for Black Reign — if anything, her third is more eclectic and style-conscious — but she gets a firmer grip on the artistic challenge and turns in a stronger, more confident-sounding record. Adding crypto-gangsta hardcore coarseness to her verbal repertoire (with guest shots by Treach, KRS-One and Heavy D, who used to be vocally averse to bad words), Latifah rhymes over bottom-booming jeep beats and sings to sweet soul, dancehall and, in the case of "Winki's Theme," a song for her late brother, a live jazz quartet. Although the bulk of the raps concern love and sex, "Just Another Day..." is a violent 'hood portrait, and "U.N.I.T.Y." takes a strong stand against women being called demeaning names. Latifah's shouldering roughneck style is a disappointing concession (especially now that she's a TV titan: would Mayim Bialik call herself a "gangsta bitch"?), but Black Reign is a fine recovery.

[Ira Robbins]