Rewind: Queen Latifah has gone from being the first gold-selling, Grammy-winning female rapper to singing pop standards and earning an Oscar nomination for her role as Matron Mama Morton in Chicago.
Fast-Forward: The Newark native's latest album is rooted in the hip-hop sounds of her youth, with added rock and reggae influences. "It's called Persona," she explains, "because there are so many different sides to me: the hip-hop girl, the girl who parties until 4 A.M. dancing to house music, the girl who's nurturing and motherly.... All of those sides needed a voice on this record."
Play It Again: Latifah's try-anything career (which includes a voice part in the new animated film Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs) is guided by her openness to new art forms and sounds. "I'm a broad-minded person when it comes to expressing myself," she says. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't—that's all part of the fun." Reached by cell phone as she navigated Los Angeles traffic, she steered us toward her go-to music.
Zero 7, When It Falls (Elektra, 2004): "I probably listen to this band more than any other. They're alternative—down-tempo electronica, but very warm sounding, with several different singers. I play them when I'm on the treadmill."
Common, Finding Forever (Geffen, 2007): "Common's got great stories, he's spiritual, he can do an Afrocentric thing as well as straight hip-hop. This album puts me into a mood, and then gets deeper into that mood."
Beyoncé, I Am...Sasha Fierce (Columbia, 2008): "People automatically go for the up-tempo, hip-hop, R&B stuff on this album, but she's got some beautiful ballads on that lush first disc. It took me a while to be still enough to listen to the first half, but now I play it all the time."
Horace Silver Quintet, Finger Poppin' (Blue Note, 1959): "Some jazz is very abstract and eclectic, but this album is melodic and pace driven. It does get loose— they still do their improvised bebop solos—but it's easy to follow. It just makes me feel good."