Kim, Lil’ 1975–
Lil’ Kim 1975–
Notorious B.I.G. Inspired Notorious K.I.M.
When Kimberly Denise Jones teamed up with Notorious B.I.G. in her Brooklyn neighborhood, she became the self-proclaimed “ghetto fabulous” Lil’ Kim, and turned the tables on male-dominated rap. The four-foot-eleven-inch dynamo’s hard-core rap songs focused on explicit sexuality, long the domain of male rappers. She also turned heads with her bold image, and donned outrageous outfits that often revealed more than they hid. Although most of her records bore a “Parental Advisory” sticker, Kim was a critical and popular success, scoring number-one hits and garnering lucrative endorsement deals.
Kim was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1975 to Ruby Mae and Linwood Jones. She was raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, but that changed after her parents split up when she was nine. She bounced back and forth from one parent to the other until she ran away from home at 14. She dropped out of high school and lived with friends and, at times, on the streets.
Lil’ Kim and her rapping talents soon were noticed by small-time drug pusher and up-and-coming rapper Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. “We lived on the same block in Brooklyn,” Kim said of meeting B.I.G. in an interview with Interview magazine. “I always thought he was cute, and when I first started talking to him, I felt like I’d known him for years … friends of mine said to him, ‘You know, Kim knows how to rap.’ He was like, ‘Please! She’s too cute to know how to rap.’” The two also became involved romantically linked, and Kim was shattered when B.I.G. married singer Faith Evans in 1994. His rumored infidelity with Kim, with Kim becoming pregnant and having an abortion, became a source of gossip in [he rap community, and inspired a bitter rivalry between Kim and Evans that the two would play out in the gossip columns, on stage, and with their respective record labels.
B.I.G. helped Kim become a member of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Junior Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes) and start her career. She made her appearance on the group’s hit debut single, “Player’s Anthem.” She also played a big part on the group’s debut album, Conspiracy which entered the top ten of the
At a Glance…
Born Kimberly Denise Jones, July 11, 1975, in Brooklyn, NY; parents are Ruby Mae and Lin-wood Jones.
Career: Rapper; albums:Hard Core, Undeas/Big Beat/Atlantic, 1996, Notorious KJ.M., Atlantic, 2000. Queen Bee Records, CEO. Actress, 1999-; television appearances:VIP, 1999, DAC, 2001. Films:She’s All That 1999;Juwanna Mann, 2001.
Awards: Platinum record for sales over one million, 1997 and 2000; won two Soul Train/Lady of Soul awards.
Billboard 200 in September of 1995. The album made it to number two on the Billboard R&B chart, and the group launched its first major tour, opening shows for Notorious B.I.G. on his U.S. tour. “Biggie thought I was just going to be this little female in the back, this girl he’d put in the group because he loved me,” Kim was quoted as saying in her record-company biography. “But when we came out, everyone loved our songs ‘Get Money’ and ‘Player’s Anthem,’ and we blew up.”
Over the next couple of years, Kim honed her style, working with a variety of producers, lending her talents on a number of other artist’s releases. She appeared on records by Mona Lisa, the Isley Brothers, and Skin Deep. Her debut album, Hard Core, was the result of her work with producers Sean “Puffy” Combs, High Class, and Jermaine Dupri.
Released in 1996, Hard Core was promoted as bold and provocative. Kim appeared scantily clad in a skimpy bikini, draped in furs on the record cover and in ads promoting the album, and Hard Core debuted at number eleven on the pop charts. It was the highest-ever debut for a female hip-hop artist on the Billboard 200. The first single, a duet with Combs, “No Time,” spent nine weeks at number one on the rap charts.
Critics and hard-core rap fans stood up and took notice when Kim released Hard Core.With her raunchy lyrics, and sexual take-no-prisoners attitude, Kim had crossed into territory previously visited only by male rappers. “Kim is a revolutionary figure in the sense that she’s a woman who is articulating the same perverted thoughts that men have been rhyming about for years,” wrote one critic in CMJ. “Asserting herself sexually like a hip-hop Millie Jackson, Kim’s ribald accounts of healthy sexual appetite come off as empowering,” wrote another in Time Out.
Although her lyrics were considered more macho than feminine, Kim’s wardrobe was decadent and all woman. She shunned the hip-hop uniform of baggy pants, shirts, and boots, in favor of revealing leather and mink catsuits, rhinestone headpieces, and carefully placed pasties. “I take bits and pieces from everybody,” Kim was quoted as saying of her fashion sense in Vibe. “I’ve always studied the fashion of women who were beautiful and glamorous….A lot of credit goes to my mom as well. She’s got a great sense of style,” she continued.
Kim’s lyrics and style indicated to many that Kim saw herself as a very liberated black woman, and she fully expected her work and image to be accepted by blacks and feminists. She was, however, criticized by some African Americans for donning lavish blonde wigs and wearing blue contact lenses. Some feminists denounced her for exploiting her sexuality and having her breasts enlarged. In an Essence article, writer Akissi Britton in an open letter to Kim, remarked that “feminism is about embracing our power without reducing it to what’s between our legs.” “I thought women were gonna be behind me,” Kim said in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, and added the criticism “discouraged” her.
Where some found criticism, others found praise for Kim. “Her capacity to calculate what you want her to be and then become it—a skill she honed in the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y.—makes her damn near interactive,” wrote Robert Marriott in Vibe. “Raunchy, vulnerable, demure. Mae West. Bessie Smith. Lady Godiva. Blue-eyed Barbarella, aqua-haired ghetto mermaid—she’s the virtual black girl staring at you from billboards and magazine covers in a dazzling array of guises,” he continued. Essence stated that many found Kim’s message “empowering.”
On March 9th, 1997, Kim received a blow in her personal life that directly affected her professionally. Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down as he left an event in Los Angeles. “He was everything to me. My father, brother, and mentor,” Kim was quoted as saying in her record-company bio. “He would tell me when to go to sleep, when to wake up. It was crazy. Big had a plan for me….He contributed so much to my life—and he still does….I’ll always love him with all my heart.” Kim wasn’t up to recording her own second record that year, but managed to contribute to recordings by Jay-Z, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, Mobb Deep, Funkmaster Flex, and Black Rob.
Kim revisited Combs’ own New York City studio, Daddy’s House, to record her long-awaited second album, The Notorious K.I.M.Producers “Shaft” and Mario Winans were among the many who lent their skills to the effort. After overseeing the rapper’s second album Combs told Vibe, “Kim’s a true artist. She’s a perfectionist.” Kim’s perfectionism paid off, and The Notorious K.I.M.debuted at number four and went platinum.
Though brash and blunt on the rest of the album, Kim exposed her vulnerable side on the single “Hold On.” On the track’s vocals, Kim was joined by her best friend Mary J. Blige. “It’s a song I wrote for Big,” she said of “Hold On” in The Source. “I could only get through it once. I would always break down and cry.” B.I.G.’s name appeared as executive producer in the album’s credits and is honored in the album title itself.
Kim and Blige met early in Kim’s career, when Junior M.A.F.I.A. was opening for Blige. “She taught me always to go with my first instinct and always to be a woman,” Kim said of Blige in Interview. “She said, ‘Kim, you are a strong, beautiful, and smart woman. You can make your own decisions.’” Kim subsequently contributed to Blige’s 1997 release, Share My World, and the two appeared together in a lipstick campaign for MAC Cosmetics. Kim also promoted Candie’s shoes and Iceberg jeans.
Kim set her sights beyond making records, and spent much of her time between records working on her career as a crossover star. She made her debuts on the big and small screens in 1999. She appeared on VIP, the TV series starring her pal Pamela Anderson, and showed up in She’s All That, which starred teen heartthrob Freddie Prinze, Jr. She launched her own label, Queen Bee Records, of which she is CEO. She has signed fellow Junior M.A.F.I.A member, ‘Lil Cease, and executive produced his solo album. Kim made her way into the mainstream spotlight as a presenter at the VH1 Fashion Awards and The Source Awards. She was invited to induct Earth, Wind & Fire into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame with fellow presenters Paul McCartney, Diana Ross, Patti Smith, and John Mellencamp. She appeared on the covers of such magazines as Vibe, The Source, Out, XXL, Genre, Sister 2 Sister, Honey, and Interview.
After the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, Kim’s name was prominent in gossip columns after pop legend Diana Ross acknowledged her with a love tap to her left breast. “People always make a big deal out of nothing,” Kim was quoted as saying in her bio of the incident. “Behind stage, she cind I kicked it. She was like the most down-to-earth icon I’ve ever met!”
A feud between Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown has risen to a level that eerily mimicked the rivalry between slain rappers, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Neither rapper can remember what started the war, but Kim and Brown have been exchanging heated words—on records and in interviews—for years. Both began as friends but the friendship has dissolved into an ongoing feud that continued to enlarge.
Brown recorded a rap that included some “choice” words for Kim on rap duo’s Capone-N-Noreaga’s song, “Bang Bang.” In February of 2001, Kim’s entourage and Capone-N-Noreaga’s entourage were involved in a shootout that severely injured one person. By the time, the police arrived, everyone had fled the scene. Though Kim denied any involvement—even saying she wasn’t there, security surveillance caught Kim’s limousine slowing down to pick up some of her entourage after the shooting. Brown, who was not at the scene, tried to set up a meeting in the weeks after the shooting. There was no response from Kim.
In the midst of all this, Kim’s goal was to become an entrepreneur and household name, according to an interview in Ebony. “I want the world to know that I can do anything,” she said. “I’m versatile…. I want people in India to know me. I want people in China to know me. I love people. That’s my main reason for working so hard and wanting to get there…. I see how much people love me, are empowered by me, and I know God has a reason for me being who I am,” she concluded.
(as solo artist)
Hard Core, Undeas/Big Beat/Atlantic, 1996.
Notorious K.I.M., Atlantic, 2000.
(with Junior M.A.F.I.A.)
Conspiracy, Atlantic, 1995.
Selected EP’s, singles
Player’s Anthem, Undeas/Atlantic, 1995.
No Time, Atlantic, 1996.
Not Tonight, Atlantic, 1997.
Hold On, Atlantic, 2000.
How Many Licks, Atlantic, 2000.
#2 X-Rated, 1997.
Best of Lil’ Kim, 2000.
High School High (original soundtrack), Various Artists, 1996.
Sunset Park (original soundtrack), (with Junior M. A.F.I. A.), 1996.
Share My World, Mary J. Blige, 1997.
Money Talks (original soundtrack), Various Artists, 1997.
My Way, Usher, 1997.
Chef Aid: The South Park Album, Various Artists, 1998.
Jermaine Dupri Presents: Life in 1472, Jermaine Dupri, 1998.
Hell City, Hell, Various Artists, 1998.
Forever, Puff Daddy, 1999.
Tunnel, Funkmaster Flex & Big Kap, 1999.
Wonderful World of Cease A Leo, Lil’ Cease, 1999.
She’s All That, 1999.
Juwanna Mann, 2001.
Notable TV appearances
VIP, “Mao Better Blues,” 1999.
Ebony, October 2000, p. 184.
Entertainment Weekly, July 14, 2000, p. 77.
Essence, October 2001, p. 112.
Harper’s Bazaar, April 2000, p. 196.
Time, March 12, 2001, p.101.
Additional information was obtained at All-Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com, Atlantic Records, http://www.atlantic-records.com, EOnline, http://www.eonline.com, Electronic Urban Report, http://www.eurweb.com, Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com, and Wall of Sound, http://www.wallofsound.go.com/artists/ilkim/home.html
—Brenna Sanchez and Ashyia N. Henderson
Provocative, explicit, street savvy, and controversial, Lil’ Kim has proven that hardcore rhyming is not just for the boys, opening up new possibilities to other women rappers. Since her 1996 debut appropriately entitled Hardcore, Kim’s influences surfaced time and again throughout the hip-hop world, most notably in the music of Foxy Brown and Queen Pen. Kim’s style, unmistakably sexy yet never submissive, raised her profile to rare heights, and despite the fact that she did not release a second album, Notorious K.I.M., a tribute to her slain mentor and lover Notorious B.I.G., until the year 2000, her image was still fresh in the public’s mind. Roles on television and in film, glitzy fashion and cosmetic advertisements, and glamorous photographs gracing magazine covers kept Kim in the spotlight.
Today, Lil’ Kim’s life of high public profile seems a world away from that of her upbringing, although the tragedies she endured as a youngster arguably influenced her music. Born Kimberly Denise Jones around 1976, the daughter of Linwood, a former United States Army sergeant and bus driver, and Ruby Mae Jones, then a department store clerk, Kim and older brother Christopher grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. As a child, she excelled in her studies at the Queen of All Saints Catholic School, but at the age of nine, when her parents divorced, Kim’s life was turned upside down. Kim, her mother and brother were forced to stay with family members and slept on various couches.
Eventually, Ruby found herself unable to care for Kim and Christopher on her own and relinquished custody to the children’s father, who instituted a set of strict house rules that Kim quickly rebelled against. Kim and her father fought and argued constantly, and at times their disputes would lead to physical violence. During one fight, according to Kim, she stabbed her father in the shoulder with a pair of scissors. In an attempt to ease tensions within the home, Linwood, who had since remarried, took Kim to see a therapist. Nonetheless, the arguments persisted, and Kim, barely a teenager, ran away from home to live with the first of several boyfriends, often selling drugs for financial support.
In the early 1990s, however, Kim’s life began to change for the better after a chance meeting with an up-and-coming rap artist named Christopher Wallace. “We lived on the same block in Brooklyn,” she recalled in an Interview feature, as quoted by Atlantic Records. “I always thought he was cute, and when I first started talking to him, I felt like I’d known him for years. I was working at Bloomingdales and friends of mine said to him, ‘You know, Kim knows how to rap.’ He was like, Please! She’s too cute to know how to rap.’” Wallace, at the time about to make waves in the rap world as Biggie Smalls—later known as the Notorious B.I.G.—with his 1993 debut hit song “Party and Bullsh**,” convinced Kim to try rapping.
Born Kimberly Denise Jones c. 1976 in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Linwood, a former U.S. Army sergeant and bus driver, and Ruby Mae Jones, a department store clerk.
Met the Notorious B.I.G., real name Christopher Wallace, at age 16; joined Brooklyn rap collective Junior M.A.F.I.A. and appeared on Conspiracy, 1995; released solo debut, Hard Core, 1996; made film debut in She’s All That, formed Queen Bee Records, 1999; acted in blockbuster film Scary Movie, released album paying tribute to Wallace entitled Notorious K.I.M., 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, NY 10104, phone: (212) 707-2533, fax: (212) 405-5665, website: http://www.atlantic-records.com.
Assuming the role as Kim’s mentor, Wallace, the person most responsible for enabling Kim to evolve into one of hip-hop’s most visible stars, took the 16-year-old under his wing. “We were really partners—like Bonnie and Clyde for real—and we lived our life like that,” Kim said to Steve Jones in USA Today. “He taught me everything I know…. Biggie still is the greatest rapper in the world. That’s why God put him in this world, so that everybody could get a taste of what this game is all about.” Despite the couple’s close bond, Wallace later married another artist from producer and record executive Sean “Puffy” Combs’ growing Bad Boy Entertainment crew, singer-songwriter Faith Evans, initiating a stormy and quite public love triangle that continued to invite speculation long after Wallace’s death. According to a 1998 People magazine interview, Kim stated that she once turned down a marriage proposal from Wallace because she didn’t feel ready, but admitted to other members of the press on numerous occasions that she resented the couple’s relationship. At the time of Wallace’s murder, he and Evans, though not divorced, were in fact separated, adding to the scandalous rumors.
Whatever the circumstances of their romance, the moment for Lil’ Kim had arrived when she hooked up with Wallace. In 1994, Notorious B.I.G. released the album Ready To Die, an overwhelming success that allowed him and friend Lance “Un” Rivera to form Undeas, an imprint label under Atlantic Records. Channeling his growing clout within the hip-hop industry, Wallace launched the Brooklyn rap collective Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes) as Undeas’ first signing. Comprised of Biggie, Kim, The 6’s (LiP Cease, Chico, and Nino Brown), The Snakes (cousins Trife and Larceny), and Solo MC Klepto, Junior M.A.F.I.A. made an immediate impact, entering the top ten of the Billboard 200 pop album chart in September of 1995 with the certified platinum album Conspiracy And as the record swiftly climbed in popularity, peaking at number two on the Billboard R&B chart, Lil’ Kim shined as the group’s breakout star. She appeared on two of the record’s standout tracks—the gold-selling single “Players’ Anthem,” with the Notorious B.I.G. and Lil’ Cease, and “I Need You Tonight,” with Lil’ Cease and Aaliyah—as well as the platinum-selling single “Get Money,” a duet with B.I.G.
That fall, Junior M.A.F.I.A. embarked upon their first major tour, opening shows for the Notorious B.I.G. nationwide. Meanwhile, Wallace and Kim hatched plans for the rising star’s solo debut, Hard Core. Upon its release in November of 1996, Hard Core took the number 11 position on the Billboard 200, marking the highest-ever debut for a female hip-hop artist in the chart’s history. It, too, eventually went platinum and spawned several smash hits, including “Crush On You,” also featuring B.I.G. and Lil’ Cease, and “No Time,” a duet with Puffy, who also produced Hard Core, that spent nine weeks at number one on the rap chart and earned Kim yet another platinum award.
But Hard Core also inspired heated debate. While Kim was no stranger to harsh lyrics, as evidenced by her performance on Conspiracy she pushed herself even further with her solo debut. Scantily dressed and sprawled across the album cover spread-eagle, Kim without inhibition rapped about sexual exploits in graphic detail, especially on the tracks “Queen Bi***” and “Not Tonight.” Not since H.W.A. and Bi***es With Problems in the early 1990s had a female rap artist taken accounts of sexual appetite to such limits. Moreover, many believed that as one of the most visible women in hip-hop, Kim, regardless of her undeniable talent for rhyming, set a difficult standard for others with her sexed-up image. Following Kim’s popular success, as well as that of her one-time friend Foxy Brown, other female rappers felt it necessary to adopt glamorous, provocative attire and boast about sexual experiences in order to sell records.
All the while, Kim was a hot topic of conversation among music critics, who credited her with ushering in a new era for commercial rap—one where women adopted the same hard rhythms and explicit lyrics as their male counterparts. “Kim is a revolutionary figure in the sense that she’s a woman who is articulating the same perverted thoughts that men have been rhyming about for years,” concluded one reviewer for CMJ, while Spin stated that “Kim is possessed of so much natural panache and audacity that she packs the attack of a 50-foot woman.” Suddenly, Kim stood at the top of her game, but would soon receive devastating news that would change her life forever.
On March 9, 1997, the Notorious B.I.G. was shot to death as he left a music industry event at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, possibly a reaction to the 1996 shooting death of Death Row rap star and actor Tupac Shakur that may have resulted from a growing rivalry between Combs’ Bad Boy Records and Death Row Records. Luckily, both murders led to a thawing of tensions within the hip-hop community rather than more violence. But as a member of Combs’ growing empire and participant in the prior dispute between the two labels, Kim was devastated by B.I.G.’s assassination, a shattering blow that continued to haunt her for years to come. “Trust me, after B.I.G. died, the drama did not stop,” she told Jones. “I just try to deal with it and hope that it turns out all right.”
Aside from personal suffering, another consequence of Wallace’s death was a falling-out with Undeas Recordings CEO Rivera. While struggling to cope with her loss and waiting for a new record deal to come along, Kim maintained a high profile by contributing to recordings by Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott (”Hit ’Em Wit Da Hee”), the Lox (”Money, Power, and Respect”), Puff Daddy (”It’s All About the Benjamins”), Jay-Z, Mobb Deep (”Quiet Storm” remix), Funkmaster Flex, Black Rob, Jermaine Dupri, and even rocker Tommy Lee’s Methods of Mayhem, as well as to the film soundtracks for Booty Call, Don’t Be a Menace While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, and Nothing to Lose, the later featuring a remix of “Not Tonight” re-titled “Ladies Night” with Angie Martinez, Da Brat, TLC’s Left Eye, and Missy Elliott.
Additionally, Kim forged a career in other areas of the entertainment business, pushing the young star further into the consciousness of American pop culture. In 1999, she debuted on television in the season finale of Pamela Anderson’s series VIP, landed a role in the film She’s All That, starring Freddie Prinze, Jr., and secured advertising endorsement deals with MAC Cosmetics as spokesperson for Viva Glam III lipstick (with proceeds going to the MAC AIDS Fund), Candies shoes, and Iceberg jeans, then returned to the music industry in 1999 as CEO of her own label, Queen Bee Records, an Atlantic imprint. Soon thereafter, the label launched with the release of a debut album from Lil’ Cease, The Wonderful World of Cease-A-Leo, featuring the Cease/Kim collaboration “Play Around.” Also that year, Kim earned two Soul Train/Lady of Soul awards and presented honors to other artists for the VHI Fashion Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, and the Source Awards.
The following year, Kim contributed a song to the Bad Boy tribute album to Notorious B.I.G. entitled Born Again, inducted Earth, Wind & Fire into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during ceremonies held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, and appeared in the summer of 2000 on the big screen again in the blockbuster film Scary Movie, directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans. Then in late June of that year, four years after her solo debut, Kim released Notorious K.I.M., the title and executive producer credits a tribute to Wallace. Although songs like “How Many Licks,” featuring singer Sisqo, recalled the same explicit nature of Hard Core, Kim realized she needed to tone down her lyrics in order to receive more airplay on commercial radio.
“With this album I knew I had to be creative and versatile,” she explained to Jones. “I didn’t go away from (explicit material) too much, though…. I felt the need to kick it like the fellas do, but from a female perspective.” For example, on the track titled “Hold On,” performed with Mary J. Blige, Kim discusses her life with Wallace and reveals that she terminated a pregnancy by him a year before his death. Not only did she want to express her feeling for her former lover with the song, but also wanted to pay tribute to women everywhere by identifying with some of their same sufferings. Moreover, Notorious K.I.M. proved Kim’s ability to pen rhymes on her own. Since her stunning debut, many had credited Wallace for molding lyrics for her, saying that she was not an MC in her own right.
Able to assume all the credit for her songs and in complete control of her own musical direction, Kim—now a businesswoman and budding actor in addition to a revolutionary force in hip-hop—intended to take her status beyond that of rap’s most provocative performer. One day, she hopes to rise to the status of icons such as Diana Ross and Tina Turner, two of pop’s greatest divas, without forgetting the people who enabled her to succeed. “People may call me a diva, but I don’t like the word because it is associated with stink-nasty attitudes, and I don’t have that,” said Kim. “I’m not always real nice, but I am nice to my fans because they have nothing to do with what I’m going through.”
Hard Core, Undeas/Big Beat/Atlantic, 1996.
Notorious K.I.M., Queen Bee/Atlantic, 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 29, 1999.
Billboard, December 5, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, May 2, 1997; May 10, 1997; May 16, 1997.
USA Today, June 30, 2000. Village Voice, February 9, 1999.
Atlantic Records, http://www.atlantic-records.com (September 2, 2000).
Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com (September 2, 2000).
Wall of Sound, http://www.wallofsound.com (September 2, 2000).
Best-selling album since 1990: The Notorious K.I.M. (2000)
Hit songs since 1990: "No Time," "Not Tonight," "How Many Licks"
Diminutive hip-hop queen Lil' Kim became one of the most distinctive female voices in late 1990s rap music. In contrast to pro-women rappers from the 1980s like Queen Latifah, Lil' Kim's explicit, sexual raps use the language of unquenchable male sexual desire to describe her own sexuality. She thus turns rap's misogyny against itself. In the four-year lapse between her first two albums, during which her lover and mentor Biggie Smalls was murdered, Lil' Kim established herself as one of hip-hop's prime cultural icons.
Lil' Kim, born Kimberly Jones, grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents divorced when Jones was nine years old, and she soon found herself in her father's custody. By Jones's account her father, a bus driver and member of the Air Force Reserve, was a strict disciplinarian. She ran away in her early teens and for a handful of years lived an itinerant lifestyle, staying with a series of boyfriends or on the streets. This ended when she was discovered by up-and-coming rapper Biggie Smalls, also called the Notorious B.I.G. (born Christopher Wallace). Jones quickly became the lone female member of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Masters at Finding Intelligent Attitudes), a group assembled by Smalls. It was here that 4-foot-11 Jones became Lil' Kim.
Lil' Kim launched her solo career following the success of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. release Conspiracy (1995) and their single "Player's Anthem." Her debut album, Hard Core (1996), was released on Smalls's Undeas Recordings, and recorded by a group of producers that included Sean "Puff Daddy" (later "P. Diddy") Combs. At the time, Hard Core was the best-selling debut rap album by a woman, and its first single, "No Time," charted. The lyrics on Hard Core depict a sexually liberated, confident woman. The song "Dreams" begins with a group of women sitting around discussing which R&B singer they find most sexually desirable, turning the tables on a popular hip-hop trope.
The murder of Smalls in 1997 hit Lil' Kim hard. This, combined with the theft of several tracks from her new album, pushed her sophomore release back two years. In the interval Lil' Kim stayed in the public eye. When it was finally released, The Notorious K.I.M. (2000) confirmed Lil' Kim's reputation as one of the most explicit rappers around. On the single "How Many Licks," she describes her many lovers. Whereas Hard Core was an explicit celebration of female sexuality, The Notorious K.I.M. finds the artist in charge, demanding oral sex, multiple orgasms and, above all, control. Her star continued to rise—along with pop artists Pink, Christina Aguilera, and Mya she released a remake of the 1970s classic "Lady Marmalade," whose sexy video won MTV's Video of the Year in 2001.
Critics maintain it is difficult to determine whether Lil' Kim's explicit raps mark the heights of female sexual liberation or the depths of self-objectification. While other female rappers, including her arch-rival Foxy Brown, write sexually graphic lyrics, Lil' Kim has distinguished herself by accentuating the discord between her small body and larger than life voice.
Hard Core (Atlantic, 1996); The Notorious K.I.M. (Atlantic, 2000).
caroline polk o'meara