Trav'lin' Light, Queen Latifah's follow-up to her first collection of pop standards, The Dana Owens Album (2004), is, if anything, even better than that Grammy-nominated set. Contemporary performers often get into trouble when they take on music of the pre-rock era, but this one, who is by now so far removed from her origins that she probably should be referred to as a former rapper, not only has the vocal talent to carry it off, she also has put in the hard work with producers, arrangers, musicians, and (no doubt) a vocal coach to create a more-than-credible album. Previously, Queen Latifah made the jump from rapper to Oscar-nominated actress, and her acting classes also seem to have come in handy here. In song after song, she has come up with a character to portray through the lyrics, and that helps make her interpretations convincing. Sometimes, it is the songwriters themselves she seems to be channeling. "Poetry Man," the leadoff track, is not far removed from Phoebe Snow's original, although Queen Latifah wisely undersings where Snow elaborated. Similarly, on "I Love Being Here with You" and "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl," she seems more than familiar with the originals by authors Peggy Lee and Nina Simone, and her versions are affectionate annotations on them. She probably knows the '40s song "Don't Cry Baby" through its '60s revivals by Etta James and Aretha Franklin, and without competing against those greats gives it an enthusiastic treatment. And, of course, the title song dates to a Billie Holiday recording with Paul Whiteman; Queen Latifah suggests Holiday's style without aping it. She is ably assisted by some expert studio supporters including producers Tommy LiPuma and Ron Fair and arrangers Jerry Hey and John Clayton; no expense has been spared in filling several studios with dozens of musicians, including full string and horn sections and such name soloists as Stevie Wonder (featured on harmonica on "Georgia Rose") and Joe Sample (piano on "Georgia Rose," "Trav'lin' Light," and "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl"). A great deal of thought has gone into the song choices (executive producer Monica Lynch is thanked specifically for her suggestions), which range from the '20s all the way up to "I Know Where I've Been" from the 2007 Hairspray soundtrack. Finally, however, it is the singer herself who deserves the credit for making the album work. As with her acting, Queen Latifah's singing is most laudable for not trying to do too much; she may evoke James or Simone or Holiday (or Smokey Robinson or the Pointer Sisters), but she never tries to outsing them; rather, her versions are glosses on the greats she and her producers so admire.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
feat: Stevie Wonder