On her million-selling debut, Hard Core, Lil’ Kim comes off as the nastiest, hardest, toughest woman in rap. In a genre where female performers such as Queen Latifah and Salt n’ Pepa tend to outclass the males, Kim is foul-mouthed and full of attitude. These days, however, her hard exterior has melted, softened by pain and loss. The violent death of Notorious B.I.G., her friend and mentor, haunts her. Her success, she says, is tainted by the spilled blood of a man she lovedthe man responsible for getting her a record deal and for getting the sound she achieves on her album.
“I’m living out my dreams, but I can’t enjoy them,” says Lil’ Kim. She grew up as Kim Jones, a Brooklyn neighbor of Christopher Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls and now best known as the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., who was gunned down on a Los Angeles street in March. “My dream was to have a hit record and to go platinum. Now that’s happening, and I can’t enjoy it. There’s too much sadness in me. The person most responsible for my success isn’t here to enjoy it with me, and I can’t stand that. I can’t get over it.”
While B.I.G. attracted controversy for his offstage war with Tupac Shakur and Death Row Records president Suge Knight, Lil’ Kim has drawn criticism for the explicit language and sexual posturing of her rhymes. Hard Core may be the lewdest, crudest album to have sold a million copies in the ’90s, but Lil’ Kim is not a lightweight, novelty rapper spouting obscenities over second-rate samples, à la Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew. There’s no mistaking the intoxicating appeal of the slow, late-night funk that glides under her words, which bob and bite with pungent personality. But her words are as nasty as anyone could want them to beand more vulgar than the uninitiated could even imagine.
For a pop-music performer, her raps are startlingly graphic. “I used to be scared of the dick,” she sings in the opening line of her album. “Now I don’t listen to the shit, handle it like a real bitch.” Some of the material is so over-the-topone song imagines sexual scenes with leading African-American musicians, from R. Kelly to the Harlem Boys Choirthat it’s as comical as old-time skits by such cultural standard-bearers as Lenny Bruce, Rudy Ray Moore, and Redd Foxx.
But Lil’ Kim is drawing fire because she’s selling in huge numbers, which means a large part of her following comes from those too young to purchase Hustler magazine or to rent X-rated videos. Her critics cover a wide ideological swath; they include religious leaders, conservatives, African-American community leaders, and some feminists. All say she presents a damaging, even dangerous, role model.
Kim contends she’s simply reflecting the life she led as a young woman after being abandoned at age 9 by her mother and, at age 15, being kicked out of the house by her abusive father. Forced to survive on the mean streets of inner-city Brooklyn, she admits she took up with drug dealers and pimps. Her lyrics portray a young woman learning to talk tough while surrounded by guns, drugs, predatory men, and sudden violence. It’s a life that many know exists but few can imagine or understand.
On “Spend a Little Doe,” for example, Lil’ Kim confronts a former lover who let her take the rap for him in a drug bust. On the day she gets out of jail, she tells him that he’d better keep an eye open while he sleeps. In “Queen Bitch,” she expresses her readiness to defend her man while bragging to other women about how luxuriously she lives. “I’d kill a nigger for my nigger,” she sings, describing herself as a “by-any-means bitch, a murder-scene bitch, clean bitch, disease-free bitch.” In the same song, she talks about having sex with “buffoons...while I watch cartoons, then sleep till noon.” That’s a better option, she contends, than the life her former friends eke out in the ghetto. “While you struggle and strive,” she tells them, “we choose which Benz to drive.”
Supporters see Kim’s licentious directness as brutal honesty; they suggest that she’s offering an explicit portrayal of a woman fending for herself in a difficult environment. Billboard magazine’s Havelock Nelson describes her as “empowering, even entertaining,” and James Bernard of Entertainment Weekly calls her “complex and well-rounded.”
But critics maintain that Lil’ Kim’s dirty-mouthed persona presents a dangerous stereotype, playing into a male fantasy in which females are nothing more than carnal, compliant sex objects with an attitude. Kim’s songs set up bad expectations for impressionable young men, and they create a bad archetype for young women.
Lil’ Kim’s detractors are right: The rapper’s endless rhymes about oral and anal sex have nothing to do with street life and everything to do with provoking listeners. Likewise, her boasts about wearing out tricks with her skills have nothing to do with what really happens in the lives of drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, and johns.
In the end, Lil’ Kim paints a female version of the same fantasy that many male rappers portraythat livin’ the gangsta life means the hardest, toughest, sexiest, most exploitative players win. As Kim knows, and as Biggie’s death illustrates, that fantasy isn’t real at all. If Kim wanted to be honest, then the woman she presents in verse would be a three-dimensional character and not the royal, superficial ghetto queen she portrays on Hard Core.
When I asked Lil’ Kim about Biggie’s death, she said she didn’t know why it happened. “I don’t know anything about it,” she offered. “I just know it should never have happened, that people are doing things they shouldn’t be doing and everything is going too far.”
That sounds honest. So does her comment about the future of gangsta rap: “People are going to be more careful about what they’re saying, because it’s serious now, and it has to stop. It has to.”
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