We all know her as Queen Latifah, but despite forging an amazing career as a Rap/Hip-Hop Artist and an acclaimed TV and Film actress (even garnering an Oscar nom for her spirited work in the film version of CHICAGO), it seems Latifah (aka Dana Owens, her birth name, which she uses on this album) has been hiding another one of her many talents--a rich velvety, nuanced voice perfect for singing jazz standards and various eclectic gems from the Great American Songbook.
To be honest she had shown us a glimpse of this talent-for those of us who were paying attention-when she crooned a stunning version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" for the soundtrack of the underrated Holly Hunter vehicle LIVING OUT LOUD. Not surprisingly, Owens also did a remarkable job of co-starring in that film, supporting Hunter with an expertise not shown by most artists of her generation.
Is there anything Owens can't do?
Well, before getting too carried away with exultant praise for this wonderful lady, let me just say that she isn't 100% successful on this, her first full out jazz/r&b/soul album.
Owens is definitely a gifted song interpreter (no doubt her acting experience comes in handy on this set), and she uses it to great effect on remakes of such classics as "Baby Get Lost", "California Dreamin'", "Hello Stranger", "Close Your Eyes" and the aformentioned "Lush Life" (which is still the strongest song of this new set). But she also shows her r&b/soul roots on mellow, "quiet storm" styled tracks like the sensual "Simply Beautiful", the raucous "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh".
There's nothing inherently wrong with Owens' delivery. While not gifted with the largest range in the biz, she definitely knows how to play with the highs (a soft higher range that is pleasing to the ear) and she definitely excels at the guttural lows we know her for so well.
The problem is that sometimes the production works against her. It's hard to put my finger exactly on what about the production doesn't click, but there is almost too much of a smooth sheen on the material, to much of an MOR patina, that isn't natural to Owens' nature. We want her to sing dirtier...to be more Pearl Bailey and less Nancy Wilson, more Eartha Kitt and less Dinah Washington and yet the production keeps reigning her in, when you sense she really wants to break loose and be wild.
There's a strength behind Owens' voice, an almost masculine intensity, that paired with her feminine sweetness could have made for quite an emotional range with the proper production and perhaps a more risky song selection, but instead her tougher side is harnessed and sometimes you want it to run free...like she did so successfully with "When You're Good To Mama" in the film version of CHICAGO. What Owens does best is play in that space between raunchy and classy, and this CD tries too desperately to push her into the "classy" arena of supper clubs and mellow singers chirping over the chink of champagne glasses. In the process, the production somewhat muzzles the bite that the Queen could otherwise have.
Definitely a strong effort, but I look forward to a more edgy set for her 2nd outing in this arena. But you've got to give the Lady credit for trying something new. While most artists of her generation are content doing the same thing over and over, it's nice to see the Queen take a well calculated risk.