NEW YORK – At 34, Queen Latifah (search) is decades away from receiving a Social Security check.
Still, she already knows what she wants to be doing when she becomes a senior citizen — and rhyming on stage to the hip-hop beat that made her famous isn’t one of them.
“I couldn’t see me rapping,” says Latifah between drags of a cigarette, lounging around her hotel suite. “With acting, I can see me doing that until I’m old and gray. But I couldn’t see personally rapping forever and ever.”
Which explains why the rap pioneer, who broke into the male-dominated field with hits like “Ladies First” and “U.N.I.T.Y” in the late ’80s and early ’90s, has downshifted on her new album to a soothing blend of soft jazz, big band, soul and standards.
“I wanted to be able to grow somewhere, and I felt like, when I start making this kind of music, this is really the kind of music I can do for the rest of my life,” she says of “The Dana Owens Album,” (search) titled after her real name. “I can continue to build on it and get more creative with it. I can sing these songs ’til I’m old and gray.”
Latifah is always thinking long-term, which may be why she’s been able to morph from successful rapper to sitcom star (“Living Single”) to talk show host (the ill-fated “Queen Latifah Show”) to one of Hollywood’s potential superstars — an Oscar-nominated actress with box-office draw (“Chicago,” “Bringing Down the House”).
Now she hits the big screen again in the action-comedy flick “Taxi,” (search) costarring Jimmy Fallon from “Saturday Night Live” — but it’s Latifah who gets top billing.
“It was that combination of critical acclaim of 'Chicago’ and this body of work that I brought already to the table and the financial success of ’Bringing Down the House’ that at the same time created this little perfect storm of Queen Latifah business,” she says.
So far, the flood of projects has included last fall’s hit “Scary Movie 3,” “Barbershop 2” and the upcoming “Beauty Shop” — a female spinoff of the “Barbershop” franchise.
It’s a gratifying time for the star, who struggled to find the right vehicle for her talents after wowing movie audiences and critics with her explosive turn as “Cleo” in the 1996 girl-robber flick “Set It Off.”
“A lot of the roles were actually on their way already, but it just took time. I think the opportunities have come after the Oscar (nomination),” she says, referring to her 2003 performance as Matron Morton in the musical “Chicago.”
“Chicago” not only opened doors for her in acting, but also in the musical arena.
Ron Fair, president of the A&M record label and a producer on the “Dana Owens” album, had long been a fan of Latifah’s pipes. “I first became aware of Dana as a singer from her performance of ‘Lush Life’ in ‘Living Out Loud,”’ he says of the 1998 movie that featured Latifah as a nightclub singer.
“I was struck by the fact that she was a rapper who could sing that well. ... It’s kind of like somebody who first got their driver’s license and their first car is a Ferrari. Her instrument is that evolved that it’s a very natural thing.”
After that flick, offers came in for Latifah to do a jazz album, including from Fair. But Latifah wasn’t ready to let go of her rap persona, even though it’s been years since she made a dent on the rap charts.
“I was still rappin’ and I still wanted to rhyme, so I didn’t want to put this album out just yet, because I knew if it became somewhat of a hit, then I would have to have to continue on with it,” she says.
Although she insists she can still hang with today’s rap crowd artistically, it’s a different scene than when she reigned supreme.
“If you wanna curse, you’re always going to out-curse me. If you wanna strip, you’re always going to get more naked than me,” she says. “Consciousness and different things going on in the world and personal experiences, those are the kind of things that I wanted to get more into.”
While Latifah isn’t willing to compromise herself for her music, there were some critics who felt she did just that in her acting career with last year’s blockbuster “Bringing Down the House,” co-starring Steve Martin. Although it grossed more than $130 million, some (including Spike Lee) felt her role as a jive-talking con who shakes up the Martin’s whitebread world was stereotypical. “Boondocks” mastermind Aaron McGruder skewered her endlessly in his comic strip, while others questioned her judgment.
Latifah didn’t see a reason to apologize — and still doesn’t.
“I can’t be worried about that. To me, I would rather push the envelope a little bit, go right to the edge, as long as it’s funny. If it ain’t funny, you can forget about it anyway,” she says, comparing herself to comedians like Red Foxx, Whoopi Goldberg and Richard Pryor, who used race in their acts to talk about cultural barriers.
“I think there were some over-the-top things in the movie, but I don’t think there was anything extremely stereotypical that was that offensive. I’m not trying to make some major political statement,” she says.
“It’s easy for people outside of what we do to talk about it, but they don’t see the real battles that we fight everyday, that we break down stereotypes ... There’s really nobody out there that could tell me anything. Because they don’t see those battles.”
Besides, Latifah adds, as the movie’s executive producer, she was able to employ more minorities and become a Hollywood power broker.
“I’ve employed a huge amount of African-Americans for positions they were qualified for, and for positions they had no experience in, but they had the drive to learn — hundreds of people, from my management company to my talk show,” she says forcefully. “Now they’re all out producing all over town.”
As far as her future, she says she would like her next “production” to be a baby, and jokes that she’s already practicing for it. But ask her about her private life and the fiercely private Latifah makes a “putting on the brakes” signal, letting you know you’ll get no farther on that subject.
She’d prefer to put the focus back on her projects, and right now, the one that seems closest to her heart is the “Dana Owens” album.
“I just hope that people will be receptive to it and give it a listen,” she says. “I hope they’ll enjoy it enough to buy it and if they buy enough of them — then I’m going to come out and perform it for them.”