It should have been over long ago for Lil’ Kim, the pint-sized Brooklyn firecracker who played the feisty romantic sidekick to the Notorious B.I.G. at the height of his career. After his 1997 murder, Kim was by all accounts a complete mess. Her rock had been snatched away from her, and life apart from Biggie didn’t seem to offer much on either a personal or professional level
Few thought she would prove as resilient as she has, but five years after his death, she remains the most relevant and exciting female rapper in the game. Last month, she released La Bella Mafia (Queen Beat/Atlantic), and it debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200 chart, just behind 50 Cent, R. Kelly, a resurgent Norah Jones, and Fabolous’s Street Dreams (Elektra), which was also making its debut. Billboard’s male-dominated R&B/Hip-Hop Album chart made space for La Bella Mafia at #4, behind the expected 50 Cent, R. Kelly, and Fabolous.
This is Lil’ Kim’s third album, and one that’s been in the making for almost three years. Compared with the lightheartedly sexual tone of her earlier recordings, it’s positively dour. Sure, there’s plenty of hypersexual game playing, but for each racy tune, a new incarnation — we’ll call her Kim the Grim — takes a turn at the mike. The result is a more complex Lil’ Kim persona: sassy yet faithful, scheming yet sincere, high-strung yet low-down. There are times when she seems to pine for a return to the good old days — to life before the plastic surgeries, before Diana Ross felt her up on MTV, before her fame, before the tragic romance with Biggie. But she can’t quite shake the darker parts of her past: memories of growing up in Crown Heights, the rough part of Brooklyn where Biggie and Kim first hooked up, becoming fast friends and then lovers. Even now, Biggie’s ghost, it seems, is still with her.
Mafia opens with an interview snippet in which Biggie says of the young Kim, " She was hungry. " By the time the first track, " Who I Am, " kicks in, she’s boasting, " I’m the legacy of B.I.G. " And on " Get in Touch with Us, " she’s downright insistent: " Biggie left me the torch. " Kim has never come close to matching Biggie’s skills as an MC. But in life his presence lent her raps a certain weight. And his lingering aura gives her the confidence to carry off the disc’s most materialistic and shallow boasts. Because she was Biggie’s girl and everybody knew it, she could get away with lacing her raps with over-the-top raunch without ever setting herself up as more than an untouchable fantasy to listeners. And in the wake of his death, she’s still protected by his ghost and by the portion of his legacy that she rightfully inherited.
But Kim’s survival hasn’t been just a triumphant test of will. In the late part of the ’90s, for the first time ever, hip-hop had not one but two female rappers who achieved national success. Sure, in the late ’80s and early ’90s New York produced a score of top female rap talent, including MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante, Antoinette, and Queen Latifah. But when Kim and her de facto nemesis Foxy Brown were fighting it out to see who would be the queen of the hip-hop hill, the competition and the notoriety produced by the ongoing battle engaged even those who usually dismiss female rappers as novelty acts.
The ladies’ raunchy sexuality didn’t hurt either. By the late ’90s, hip-hop had become an all-encompassing lifestyle. Lewdness had been a part of it from the start, but to hear frank sexual talk coming from the mouths of well-endowed women brought new life to the game. In the years since, only a few female rappers have challenged this duo’s primacy (notably Eve, for whom Kim has a few choice words on " Came Back for You " : " Go back to them stripper ways, " she tells her younger nemesis). For the most part, it’s been easy for Kim to dominate the field.
And of late, she’s been very dominant, with La Bella Mafia holding firm in the Billboard 200 Top Ten. It hasn’t hurt that only 50 Cent has released a real hip-hop blockbuster; his sales figures are a reflection of the same slump in commercial competition that Kim has benefitted from. 50 Cent is the first prominent male MC Kim has collaborated with since Biggie’s passing: he turns up on Mafia’s " Magic Stick, " a jovial sex romp that was originally meant for Trina before circumstance gave it to Kim. " This junk in my trunk ain’t made for chumps, " she boasts, reminding everyone — even 50 Cent — that like a faithful widow, she’s holding out for the real thing.