Revisiting Queen Latifah's 'Order In The Court' 20 years later
Despite not receiving proper recognition as one of hip-hop’s central footnotes, the album represented a larger frustration with issues that we consistently see arise today.
Just as 1998 experienced R&B in the midst of its renaissance, hip-hop had analogous momentum on its side—but with more monumental stakes. DMX growled and hyped up the scene on his debut and sophomore albums seven months apart; Lauryn Hill’s solo start would eventually nab Album of the Year at the 1999 Grammys; and JAY-Z, Busta Rhymes, and Outkast were on their third project each, further shaping their signature sounds, while simultaneously indicating a new legion of emcees were taking over the game. On the opposite end, Big Daddy Kane—one of the game’s most flashiest and precisely skillful from the Golden Age of the 80s to early 90s—would be releasing his final studio album to date, appropriately titled Veteranz’ Day. When ’98 came to an end, this era in hip-hop subtly felt as if it went through its habitual phase of “out with the old, in with the new.”
All this in consideration, Dana “Queen Latifah” Owens found herself needing to address her pre-eminence on Order In The Court. With three studio LPs under her belt since 1989’s debut All Hail The Queen, the anointed one dropped her fourth on June 16. But unlike her contemporaries’ albums of ’98, Order In The Court barely receives its proper recognition today as one of hip-hop’s central footnotes.
It had been nearly five years since her last album, Black Reign, and Queen Latifah’s stardom had already launched to new heights. During her half-decade hiatus of recording full-length projects, the star focused on building her résumé in Hollywood. At the time, she had been associated with two defining roles: Khadijah Jones, the chill magazine editor and blunt friend on the FOX sitcom Living Single, and as Cleo, her show-stealing turn in 1996’s bank heist flick Set It Off.
Although her stint as Cleo received its fair share of praise—subsequently jumpstarting a series of future iconic roles on the big screen (one being Academy Award-nominated)—it also came with a rumor mill. It wasn’t Cleo’s ride-or-die attitude throughout the film, or the final moments of her guns ablaze downfall that stirred conversations on the streets, but instead, that Cleo happened to be openly lesbian. Some critics thought Queen Latifah had played the role a little too well, speculating about the actress’ real life sexuality.
Before delving into the sonics and intricacies of Order In The Court, it’s important to briefly address that matter and Latifah’s previous feud with Foxy Brown—as they served as many of the album’s inspirations. Compared to the veteran, Foxy Brown was relatively new in the game having dropped one solo album and a collaborative one in her three years. Still, Brooklyn’s young Ill Na Na had much to say in private about Latifah, the woman who set an example for other femcees, including Brown herself.
On the soundtrack for Set It Off, Latifah contributed “Name Callin’,” a vicious track that embodied Cleo’s readiness for war, with the warning shots “I wouldn’t dis another sista unless she had it comin’.” In 1997, Foxy Brown simmered a bit before countering with a freestyle for Funkmaster Flex, to the tune of MC Lyte’s “10% Diss.” The attacks toward her opponent foolishly questioned her sexuality (“Now is you straight or is you gay?”); used ageism as weaponry (“Cuz I’m half yo age”); and used RIAA certifications as reasons why Foxy should be considered queen instead (“went double-platinum on y’all bitches”). Of course, Latifah’s first round of bait worked as she brought the follow-up kill, “Name Callin’ Part 2.” She’d won the war by stating, “Today I’m not the queen, a sista, role model, or friend / Today I’m that bitch that’ll shoot you a fair one, this don’t exclude men!”
Leading into Order In The Court, that same vigor existed, but with an even deeper message. The surreal album cover featured a headshot of an enraged Queen Latifah screaming, in a thick cloud of smoke. Sitting on top of her head, a crown of fire; sitting below her profile, the Queen’s first Parental Advisory sticker, indicating brazen attacks and content were ensured on wax.
The album opens with the first single, “Bananas (Who You Gonna Call?),” a song that starts out with a voice screaming over a dramatic snippet of comic book superhero music. Those few seconds signaled that terror was falling from the sky, with Latifah’s Flavor Unit associate Apache asking, “Who you gonna call when it’s time to brawl / Standin’ round waitin’ for my Queendom to fall.”
Over a dial tone-led beat, Latifah asserts her dominance in the rap game claiming, “Anywhere I’m in there and been there / So recognize this, who the nicest / Sit down and settle for your consolation prizes.” A series of other boasts followed: “I am the Queen, that’s my name, time to explain,” and “It’s the Q-U-double-E-N.”
The first track of Order In Court granted permission for Latifah to be the presiding judge of the state of hip-hop, while the second noted “Court Is In Session.” The instrumental’s slower g-funk groove allotted room for the emcee to call out, “Some of y’all MCs in hip-hop just making the game crowded.” Her assessment rang true to what was happening in 1998, as she taunted her rivals such as Foxy by saying, “What ya need to do is pay homage and make some sister challenge me.”
The division of female rappers tremendously changed since Latifah’s Black Reign, which would be evident on Order. Foxy Brown, just like her tried-and-true foe Lil’ Kim, had reinvigorated the game with hypersexual squat poses, raunchy, in-your-face one-liners, and claws-out spitting on wax. Even Missy Elliott, who didn’t fit the petite mold of her contemporaries, had her own brand of raw sexuality.
With liberated sexuality being a key focal point of marketing hip-hop records from women, plus the mix of speculation prompted by character Cleo, Latifah sought the opportunity to flex her sensuality on the album. After a bawdy skit of the same name, “No/Yes” finds the rapper asking “should I do it?” repeatedly as she switches between a seductive rapping flow (differing from the harsher, abrasive delivery she previously exhibited) and contralto crooning. In ways, the feel of the song took after Salt-N-Pepa’s sex positive anthems, particularly from their 1997 album Brand New. And if there wasn’t a bigger clue, listen no further than Latifah’s statement of “let’s talk about sex in the 90s.”
Order In The Court featured the inclusion of many Flavor Unit associates and other artists looking to break big. On “Parlay,” the “5’2″ [standing]” Le Femme Markita trades bars back-and-forth with the Queen, proving she could hold her own over a cool jazzy groove about “get[ting] money all day.” Their ease into a speak-flow of poetics towards the end of the song mirrored the banter of Wu-Tang Clan, particularly in ’97’s “Triumph.”
Some women in hip-hop had a skill for gliding between spitting as seriously (and equally braggadocious) as the men, and vocally wowing with their singing (something the fellas were lightyears behind). The top three of the 90s scene for doing this feat had been Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, and of course, Queen Latifah.
Order In The Court was a rich record because of its R&B roots, making it stand out that summer. “What Ya Gonna Do” stars Inaya Jafan centerstage, with Latifah as the background vocals. Their solution to coping with inevitable loss is to “just pray.” As the instrumental drips along the strokes of a flamenco guitar, the lead artist advises to “search to find the truth / to find the light inside of you.” And just like any great emcee capable of flexing their versatility, while also acknowledging the hot sounds and people running the game, Latifah takes a spiritual lead from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony during the song’s vocal vamp, running through the inquisitive section rapidly.
Faith Evans—who’d deliver her rolling skating anthem “Love Like This” three months later—and Lil’ Mo appeared as featured guest vocalists on the summery “It’s Alright.” With minimal digging into extended verses, the song’s strength exists in how all three were able to cheerfully run the soulful hook alongside the guitar-riffing and cowbell-thumping, instrumental sample of Alicia Myers’ 1981 disco hit “I Want To Thank You.”
Latifah tapped back into her slinky delivery a lá LL Cool J’s late-80s mack-charm on “I Don’t Know,” which featured a harmonizing chorus with Dru Hill’s Sisqó. However the standout had been witty cut “Paper,” which spoofed why her name was being slandered as a way to “stick [her] for [her] paper,” and stop her bags. The song sampled Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and was produced by Pras of The Fugees.
Towards the end of the record there’s a “Phone Call” skit where Latifah concedes, “Every time I try to get out the game, they pull me back in.” Here it becomes apparent that the star realized she had her heyday in rap and is allowing for the younger generations to step in the limelight while she establishes a new channel of acting.
Being one of the leading female pioneers in the Golden Age, next to the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Latifah realized her style went against what was commercially accepted and post-contemporary. Order In The Court had simply been a reminder not to get that legacy twisted. Following “Phone Call,” she’d end up in an all-female “Brownsville” rap showcase—over a remixed beat of “Hobo Scratch”—that channeled the same energy as Set It Off.
In addition to all of the aforementioned information, Latifah held a specific conviction that manages to still play relevant today. Order In The Court includes two songs that championed black unity with her signature jazz vibes: “Black On Black Love” and “Life.” On the former, she reminisces about the good days of the community standing “black and strong” before wishing up the idea of everyone “lov[ing] their neighbors” and “support[ing] black-owned stores.”
By the time of the album’s conclusion, “Life,” she had figured that beefing with other femcees had been pointless. This was primarily due to the tragic deaths of 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G., as she dedicated separate verses for both lost lives. If you listen carefully to the album, sonically it represents not only Latifah’s native New Jersey offspring from NYC/East Coast hip-hop but also salutes West Coast g-funk vibes—the “all eyez on me” reference in “Court Is In Session” a tell-tale sign.
Order In The Court represented a larger frustration, as Latifah was not only heartbroken by hip-hop’s change due to losing the best, but also how the game could often get ugly within the community. It’s a bit ironic that the album doesn’t receive its due justice, as we consistently see these issues arise today—particularly in the last few years with Nicki Minaj literally protecting her own “Queendom” as a slew of new female talent come up and her beefing track record, or with J. Prince inciting Pusha T and Drake to end their feud in order to prevent another Biggie-Pac-like tragedy. At this moment, it’s never too late to listen back carefully to the messages presented on the OG Queen’s opus.
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