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Queen Latifah talks about hip-hop, picking out roles and female MCs

NEW YORK - Even though Queen Latifah is now on her second jazz album, there's still some who expect her to be spitting out raps instead of singing riffs.

But the 37-year-old entertainer has never allowed herself to be defined by one talent, let alone one genre. Though Latifah got her start years ago as a feminist, Afrocentric rapper, she's long since proved she's a performer who defies categorization. She's an Oscar-nominated actress with box-office success, a film producer, cosmetics model, and as her latest record, 'Trav'lin' Light' shows, a formidable jazz singer.

'Trav'lin' Light' is the follow-up to her the Grammy-nominated jazz debut 'The Dana Owens Album,' which takes its title from her real name. On her new disc, Latifah sings songs popularized by Peggy Lee, Etta James and Nina Simone, among others. She's currently on a nationwide tour to support the disc.

Still, as successful as she's been singing jazz, she's also not ready to give up on hip-hop. In an interview with The Associated Press, Latifah talked about returning to rap, her film career and what women in hip-hop need to succeed.

AP: On 'Trav'lin' Light' you invited Stevie Wonder to play harmonica on the song 'Georgia Rose.' What was it like working with him?

Latifah: I saw him at a restaurant in L.A. and told him about it and (said) I would love for him to be on it. He's a man with a lot of talent and ability, so he just came in and listened to the track a couple of times and just started rocking it. It was sort of like a dream come true. It was very surreal.

AP: Are you planning on dropping another rap album?

Latifah: Yeah, I got some joints already recorded, and its stuff that's still viable. It's not like anybody jumped in and took over where I left off.

AP: But your original audience is grown now. Do you ever worry about not being able to reach the younger generation?

Latifah: I can't be trying to reach that generation. I can only reach them on the things that we relate on. I can't pretend to be 15-years-old when I'm 37. All those people who I grew up with that have kids now and jobs, they need music to listen to too. The problem is hip-hop hasn't grown up enough. Jay-Z is a great example of someone who's connected to the youngest people and connected to my generation and older, because some of what he's talking about I can relate to. Whoever gravitates to (my) music, they have to find it and enjoy it themselves.

AP: What do you think about the current state of female MCs?

Latifah: I feel like it's just time for us who's been in the game for a long time to extend ourselves to those who just got in it. Each one teach one, and I think that's been lacking more than anything. It's always going to come down to the women's essence. And that's the shot in the arm the game needs right now.

AP: How do you choose your film roles?

Latifah: I have to connect to it emotionally in some way. ... Something I feel is really going to challenge me where I'm going to have to work really hard to get it. Or (a script) can just be funny. Like when I read 'Bringing Down the House,' it had a lot of problems but it was hilarious to me.

AP: You received negative criticism for 'Bringing Down the House' from people like Spike Lee, with whom you've worked with before. Have you guys spoken since he lashed out against you?

Latifah: Yeah, we speak. He's welcome to his own opinion; he's just full of (it) sometimes so I don't really care (laughs). I personally felt like the movie was hilarious. And if anything, the fact that this girl was stereotyped was the reason why she got away with a lot of what she did. She was very intelligent, but she chose to wild out a bit, and I can relate to that. The movie was about challenging stereotypes and bottom line, making sure it's funny. I was pushing the envelope purposely.

AP: Who is the ideal person you would like to work with?

Latifah: I would like to work with (Steven) Spielberg. That would be cool enough for me because I'm sure it would be some incredible, crazy stuff that's never happened.