in celebration of lil' kim, rap’s original provocateur
As she drops a new mixtape, we look back on the legacy of the Queen Bee.
The idea of female rappers owning their sexuality is nothing new in the modern hip hop landscape. From Nicki Minaj twerking in a thong bikini in the "Anaconda" video to Azealia Banks stripping off for Playboy, the notion of a confident woman claiming agency of her own body is commonplace in a society that generally accepts that women can be sexual without being commodified. However, this wasn't always the case, and there's arguably one woman to thank -- Lil' Kim, who last week returned to the game with her brand new mixtape Lil Kim Season. The release marked over two decades in the industry for Kim, who revolutionized hip hop with her explicit opus Hard Core back in 1996. Before she came out, it was argued that sexy women in hip hop were exploited by the industry, reduced to mere video girls cast to dance around the male breadwinner. Even the women that were successful -- MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shanté - were respected for their lyrical skills but never knowingly sexualized -- often the opposite. Kim reversed this notion, announcing her arrival to hip hop with a provocative promo poster that saw her clad in a leopard print bikini and matching feather-trimmed robe.
This wasn't the first the hip hop world had heard of Kim. The rapper made her debut on Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s 1995 debut Conspiracy and rose to prominence under the tutelage of hip hop legend Notorious B.I.G, while also landing big-name features like Jay Z for her first album. Naturally, these affiliations led to the common assumption that Biggie was the ghostwriter behind her rhymes -- an assumption fueled by the fact that Kim was the rapper's mistress. It was rumored that the star had stolen Biggie from his then-wife Faith Evans, leading to widespread slut-shaming which Kim knowingly countered by embracing her aggressive sexuality. Controversially, Hard Core's first full-length track "Big Momma Thang" opens with the lyric, "I used to be scared of the dick / now I throw lips to the shit, handle it like a real bitch" -- a fitting introduction to one of the most sexually explicit LPs in musical history.
Kim's brazen sexuality was underscored with undertones of sex-positive feminism, emphasizing the importance of female pleasure in the bedroom. Gone was the archaic notion that men were the dominant priority and, instead, the overall picture was one of a young woman that both owned and enjoyed her own sexuality. One exemplary track is the classic ode to cunnilingus "Not Tonight," in which Kim highlights a common sexual double standard.
She later revisited the topic on her 2000 hit "How Many Licks," which features a heavy dose of moaning in the second verse and a sci-fi video depicting a production line of customizable robotic sex dolls. Essentially, Kim has built a legacy by letting us all know she gets laid frequently and on her own terms -- a message which, although divisive, should be celebrated in a world that often strips women of their sexual authority.
Unsurprisingly, the fashion industry was quick to embrace the colorful, courageous style that came alongside her sex-soaked lyrics. Kim's rhymes were characteristic of the logomania that swept hip hop in the 90s and 00s, often name-dropping the likes of Prada, Moschino and Versace in rhymes. Photographer David LaChapelle was a fan, lensing a number of iconic images which ranged from a naked Kim painted in the Louis Vuitton monogram, to the color-soaked cover of her 2000 album Notorious K.I.M. Fashion was an important part of her appeal, earning her respect from the likes of Donatella Versace and further propelling her profile outside the confines of hip hop. Part of Kim's enduring appeal is the courage to do things differently -- remember when she walked the VMAs red carpet in a purple jumpsuit with one breast exposed? It was these sartorial risks that made Kim unique, ushering in the 'ghetto fabulous' era that gave rappers a new style credibility.
The outrageous costumes and personal controversies can often overshadow the fact that Kim is undisputedly one of the best rappers in the industry. Proof of this fact came in 2005, when hip hop bible The Source awarded her a prestigious five-mic ranking for The Naked Truth -- to this day, she remains the only female rapper to receive the accolade. Released in the wake of a high-profile court case that saw the rapper jailed for perjury, the 21-track LP is unflinchingly honest and lyrically ferocious. Hailed as her 'confessional,' Kim is at her venomous best after being betrayed by former crew Junior M.A.F.I.A, using her lyrics to call out everyone from 50 Cent to her former friends. Veering from reggae to soul and back again, Kim demonstrates stylistic versatility and finally emerges victorious in her ongoing feud with Foxy Brown with "Quiet's" scathing lyrics -- "I fought tooth and nail to keep them punks out of jail / now hoes want to go to court for not paying for their nails… coming at me bitch, you're playing with fire / I ain't gon' come back at you, I'm coming at your ghostwriter." The diss was a reference to a court case filed against Brown for assaulting a nail technician, and marked the final diss exchanged in one of hip hop's most famous feuds.
Despite not reaching the heights of Hard Core or The Naked Truth, Lil Kim Season is a reminder that the star's new music still draws attention in an industry where longevity remains a rarity. Regardless of what Lil' Kim chooses to release, her name is of continued relevance and her legacy has inspired a legion of empowered female stars, many of which have paid direct homage to her. Minaj is an outspoken fan of Kim (despite previous 'beef'), replicating Kim's iconic Hard Core poster in a photoshoot for 2008 mixtape Sucka Free. Then there's Miley Cyrus, living proof that Kim's influence extends further than just hip hop. Cyrus' overt sexuality and provocative costumes are reminiscent of Kim's early years -- a similarity referenced explicitly by Cyrus when she (brilliantly) emulated that seminal VMA outfit back for Halloween back in 2013. Young stars recognize Lil' Kim as an anomaly in an industry which tends to treat women as props; she has consistently straddled critical and commercial success whilst flaunting her sexuality on her own terms. The result of her hard work is a more accepting music industry, which paved the way for talent like Cyrus and Minaj and allowed them to be equally brazen. Sex is no longer something to be ashamed of -- and it's largely thanks to Lil' Kim.
Text Jake Hall