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Queen Latifah Tunes into 'Trav'lin' Light'

To build a career as a hip-hop artist, singer, actor, producer and cover girl, Queen Latifah followed her mother's simple advice: Don't put all your eggs in one basket. It has served her well. Latifah can now afford to do some of the less commercial things she loves, like singing old jazz and R&B tunes.

In the mid-1970s, one of the songs she heard over and over again, was "Poetry Man" by Phoebe Snow.

"My mom played 'Poetry Man' a lot when I was a kid in the house. I mean, she played that album endlessly," says Latifah, whose real name is Dana Owens.

Her mother Rita Owens says, "I cleaned my house many a Saturday to 'Poetry Man.'"

"I just loved the song so much, the melody, and Phoebe Snow has such a unique voice," says Owens, a retired high school art teacher.

I want every day to be life for the living, not just traipsing through it existing. I'm just interested in life and the world and exploring.
Queen Latifah

Around the time Queen Latifah was choosing songs she would record for her new album, she happened to hear "Poetry Man" on the radio and thought she might like to try it.

"But since I knew this was one of my mom's favorite songs, I had to go ask her" what she thought about her daughter covering "Poetry Man," Latifah says.

Owens says she told her daughter: "You know Dana, that's not an easy song to do. And you have to do Phoebe Snow justice. If you're going to take on a legend's song, then you have to really step to the plate."

"She recently heard it and she really likes it," Latifah says. "She felt like I kind of followed the template but sort of made it my own."

Trav'lin' Light' is Queen Latifah's second album of popular jazz and R&B songs.

The first, released a few years ago, she intentionally called The Dana Owens Album. She used her given name as a way of letting people know that before she was the rapper-turned-actress Queen Latifah, she was Dana Owens, a girl who loved to sing. She concedes that the name change was a little confusing, even for herself.

"The one thing that did happen that was a pain in the butt was that everyone started calling me Dana. And I'm like, 'Oh, God. I had that name to myself for a while,' and now it's like-people are like, 'Hey, Dana.' And I'll turn around thinking I know them but I don't know who they are. I have no clue."

That might explain why this new album is under her more popular moniker Queen Latifah.

It's been about 20 years since she made a name for herself as a socially conscious rapper. But her work from that period hasn't been forgotten. The video for her 1989 song "U.N.I.T.Y." has been viewed more than 50,000 times since it was posted on YouTube just five months ago. The song is an attack on men who use expletives to address women.

Queen Latifah says people still ask her when she's going rap again.

"I'm waiting in the wings with that," she says.

Latifah might come back to hip hop next summer. But for now, she's gearing up for a nationwide tour to promote her new album.

Latifah says that most of the songs she chose for her new CD mean a lot to her personally, especially one that had been performed by Sarah Vaughan, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die."

"I want everyday to be life for the living, not just traipsing through it existing. I'm just interested in life and the world and exploring. So that song really works for me."

Latifah begins her national tour this week and depending on the audience, she says she might even do a little rapping.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Another modern singer who's reaching to the past for inspiration is Queen Latifah.

Queen Latifah says she's taken to heart advice her mother gave her not to put all her eggs in one basket. The musician who got her start as a rap artist is now also an actor, a producer, and a make-up model for CoverGirl. She's done so well diversifying she says she can now afford to do some of the less commercial things she loves like singing old jazz and R&B tunes.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: In the mid-1970s, one of the songs Dana Owens, or Queen Latifah, heard over and over again was "Poetry Man" by Phoebe Snow.

QUEEN LATIFAH (Singer; Actor): My mom played "Poetry Man" a lot when I was a kid in the house. She - I mean, she played that album endlessly.

Ms. RITA OWENS (Mother of Queen Latifah; Retired High School Art Teacher): I cleaned my house many a Saturday listening to "Poetry Man."

BLAIR: Rita Owens, a retired high school art teacher, is Queen Latifah's mom.

Ms. OWENS: I just loved this song so much - the melody. And Phoebe Snow has such a unique voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Poetry Man")

Ms. PHOEBE SNOW (Singer): (Singing) You make me laugh 'cause your eyes, they light the night they look right through me.

BLAIR: Around the time Queen Latifah was choosing songs she would record for her new CD, she happened to hear "Poetry Man" on the radio, and thought she might like to try it.

Ms. LATIFAH: But since I knew this was one of my mom's favorite songs, I had to go ask mom about it, and say, you know, what do you think about me covering "Poetry Man"?

Ms. OWENS: I said, well, you know, Dana, that's not an easy song to do. And you have to do Phoebe Snow justice. If you're going to take on a legend's song, then you have to really step to the plate.

Ms. LATIFAH: And she recently heard it, and she really likes it. She felt like I kind of followed the template, but sort of made it my own.

(Soundbite of song, "Poetry Man")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) You bashful boy, you're hiding something sweet. Please give it to me yeah. Oh, talk to me some more. You don't have to go. You're the Poetry Man - you make things all right, yeah, yeah.

BLAIR: This is Queen Latifah's second CD of popular jazz and R&B songs. The first, released a few years ago, she intentionally called, "The Dana Owens Album". She used her given name as a way of letting people know that before she was the rapper-turned-actress Queen Latifah, she was Dana Owens, a girl who loved to sing. She admits the name change was a little confusing, even for herself.

Ms. LATIFAH: The one thing that did happen that was a pain in the butt was that everyone started to call me Dana. And I'm like, oh, God. I had that name to myself for a while, and now it's like - people were like, hey, Dana. And I'll turn around thinking I know them - I don't know who they are. I have no clue.

BLAIR: Which might explain why this new CD, "Trav'lin' Light," is under her more popular moniker Queen Latifah.

It's been about 20 years since Queen Latifah made a name for herself as a socially conscious rapper. But her work from that period hasn't been forgotten. The video for her 1989 song "U.N.I.T.Y." has been viewed more than 50,000 times since it was posted on YouTube just five months ago. The song is an attack on men who use expletives to address women.

(Soundbite of song, "U.N.I.T.Y")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Rapping) What's going on in your mind is what I ask 'ya

&Unidentified Woman: (Rapping) Yeah.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Rapping) But like Yo-Yo, you don't hear me though. You wear a rag around your head and you call yourself, a gangsta (beep) now that you saw Apache's video.

BLAIR: Queen Latifah says people still ask her when she's going rap again.

Ms. LATIFAH: And especially lately. I don't know if there's really just a deficit in the female rap game, but - and just kind of content-wise on what people are talking about. But, you know, I'm waiting in the wings with that.

BLAIR: Meaning Queen Latifah might come back to hip-hop next summer. But for now, she's gearing up for a nationwide tour to promote her new album, which includes one song she chose specifically for its potential to get a crowd going.

(Soundbite of song, "Chick on the Side")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) Bet you got a chick on the side. Sure you got a chick. I know you got a chick on the side.

Ms. LATIFAH: I wanted to do the Pointer Sisters' song because I just thought about performing it live. I mean, a band could really rock this, and it's all…

(Singing) Bet you got a chick on the side. Sure you got a chick. I know you got a chick on the side.

So it's just got this energy to it, you know, that's cool to me.

(Soundbite of song, "Chick On The Side")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) Bet you got a chick on the side. Sure you got a chick. I know you got a chick on the side. Bet you got a chick on the side. Sure you got a chick. I know you got a chick on the side.

BLAIR: Queen Latifah says most of the songs she chose for her new CD mean a lot to her personally, especially a song Sarah Vaughan did called, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die," because, Latifah says, those are words to live by.

Ms. LATIFAH: I want every day to be, you know, life for the living, not just kind of traipsing through it - existing. I'm just interested in life, and the world, and exploring, and, you know? So that song really works for me.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) Hallelujah gonna dance, gonna fly. I'll take a chance ridin' high. Before my number's up, I'm gonna fill my cup. I'm gonna live, live, live, live, live 'til I die.

BLAIR: Queen Latifah begins her national tour this week, and depending on the audience, she says she might even do a little rapping.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) I'm gonna live 'til I die.

MONTAGNE: You can hear more songs from Queen Latifah's album, "Trav'lin' Light," at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) … I die. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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