By 1993, Queen Latifah had long established her rule as the reigning lady of rap. Known for her rhymes that preached female empowerment, her Afrocentric style of dress and witty lyricism, the Queen was a hip-hop force to be reckoned with. She was also on the brink of crossover success in her budding acting career, having just secured the lead role in the Fox sitcom Living Single. But her acting success didn't mean that she had forgotten about what put her on the map. Black Reign, the Queen's third effort, saw Latifah coming with a harder edge than her previous outings and also pulling out some unexpected tricks from her repertoire. Despite the slight switch up, it was a perfect snapshot of where hip hop was at the moment, especially for female MCs.
The persona that Queen Latifah took on the album was quite different than the fun and funky one that she'd previously introduced. This Latifah was a bit bolder, brasher and a bit more world-weary. She was also not afraid to show that she could play with the boys just fine, dressing up the project in more than a few of the trappings of gangsta rap. Though, while it's easy to link Black Reign's harder edge to the sound ushered in by Dr. Dre's 1992 album The Chronic, one can't help but also think that the death of her brother Lancelot Owens also contributed to the feel of the record.
"Black Hand Side" and "Listen 2 Me" kicked off the set and set the tone for most of the album, which was filled with grimy beats and hard-hitting drums underscored by hints of melody here and there (usually provided by Latifah's own vocals). Still, the lyrics were not too unusual for Queen as they espoused Black pride and female empowerment, though a lot more focus is devoted to the everyday life of those in her East Orange, NJ hometown. The album's third track, "I Can't Understand," is a perfect culmination of this, as she switches back and forth, speaking on issues as heavy as drug use and community violence and as trivial as cheating lovers all within the same four-minute span.
However, she's all rough around the edges on the appropriately named posse cut "Rough," for which she invited fellow tri-state area MC's Heavy D, KRS One and Naughty By Nature's Treach. The MCs pass the mic as each flexes about who's the baddest on the mic, with Queen often coming harder than some of her male cohorts. The mood of this song continues with "Bring the Flavor" before she switches a bit to the personal side of things with "Coochie Bang," which finds her talking quite frankly about just how she likes it, and "Superstar," which addresses men too scared to step to her correctly.
"Just Another Day" found Latifah leading listener's on a tour of her neighborhood as she lyrically cruised around the block. Though it did feature more of the posturing that, admittedly, felt a bit false and had begun to wear thin by this time in the album, its social commentary combined with a sing-song chorus proved to be a winning combination. Perhaps Black Reign's biggest social statement, though, was the modern women's anthem "U.N.I.T.Y." Over a jazzy swipe of The Crusaders "Message to the Inner City" posed one of the most memorable questions of the '90s: "Who you callin' a bitch?" And with that, she addressed the topic of being a woman (more specifically, a black woman) coming of age during the era. Each verse addressed street harassment, domestic violence and gang violence, topics that, unfortunately, are still very relevant today. Perhaps the universality of the GRAMMY-winning song is why it remains Latifah's highest charting single to date and her only single to make it to the Top 30 of Billboard's Hot 100.
The most surprising moments of Black Reign, however, came toward the end of the record. That's because the rapper showcased her beautiful singing voice just as much as her rhymes on "Weekend Love," "Mood Is Right" and "Winki's Theme." In fact, on "Weekend Love" she even goes full-on R&B. While Latifah's singing talents weren't exactly a secret at this point (she'd sparingly flexed her vocal chops on each of her previous albums), these were perhaps her first all-in forays with singing. Not that the Queen had anything to fear, as her warm voice sounded great on the reggae-tinged "Weekend Love," melding well with featured guest Tony Rebel and served her well on "Mood Is Right." But her jazz turn on "Winki's Theme" was most impressive. A dedication to her late brother, it found her shedding much of the hardcore persona she'd adapted for the album and revealing an artistic and vulnerable heart and soul behind it all.
Black Reign was a turning point for Queen. With Living Single a breakout hit by the time it was released, it was the last musical statement from her for the next five years. However, it foreshadowed much of her artistic evolution. Order In the Court would find her continuing with harder-edged rhymes while flirting with R&B. And 2004's The Dana Owens Project, a collection of R&B-tinged jazz standards, would find her diving head first into singing. But Black Reign was the first to show us these two different sides (we'll call them Cleo and Dana) of Queen Latifah. While she hadn't completely perfected the balancing act between them in 1993, she showed that she was well on her way to mastering both sides while providing us with poignant and insightful moments along the way.