The Meaning of Lil’ Kim

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An essay from the new book The Motherlode that details the complicated legacy of one of rap’s boldest provocateurs

Graphic by Drew Litowitz

Throughout hip-hop history, women rappers have often been diminished and tokenized by the genre’s male-dominated establishment. The Motherlode serves as a comprehensive corrective: The book highlights more than 100 women who played an integral part in rap’s evolution, from early pioneers like MC Sha-Rock and Roxanne Shanté to underrated boundary breakers including Bytches With Problems and Yo-Yo to modern stars like Azealia Banks and Cardi B. Author and Pitchfork contributing editor Clover Hope tells each of their stories with clarity and a deep knowledge, while vivid illustrations by Rachelle Baker and a series of pithy sidebars—including one called “Nicki Minaj Invented Color” that breaks down the chart topper’s loudest looks—convey hip-hop’s infectious sense of play.

This month’s Pitchfork Book Club features an excerpt from The Motherlode that chronicles how the iconic Brooklyn rapper Lil’ Kim set a sexually liberated precedent that artists have been following for the last 25 years.

Lil’ Kim illustration from The Motherlode by Rachelle Baker © Abrams Image

The defining image of Lil’ Kim’s career is a portrait of her squatting in a leopard-print bikini, an outtake from the photo shoot for Hard Core. Her mentor, the Notorious B.I.G., chose the photo for posters leading up to the album’s 1996 release, knowing exactly which pose to use. “He threw the negatives on the table and pointed to the one with my legs open and said, ‘That’s the one right there,’” Kim told XXL, 10 years later. Throughout the recording process, Biggie masterminded Kim’s image and content, telling her to soften her voice, for example, to sound less masculine.

Kim, at some point, decided to own that persona, becoming a dream girl men envisioned, rap’s ultimate sex symbol, praised for both her skills and her salesmanship of fucking. Before Kim, the top-selling women rappers—Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa—had been all about challenging sexism in hip-hop. Kim brought a raw sexual energy to the genre and became the model for a generation of female rappers caught in a battle between owning their sexuality and exploiting it. She made the new concept of a female rapper—with a sexy visual to go with their music—not a choice but a necessity.

Before Hard Core hit the streets, Kim ran with Junior M.A.F.I.A., the nine-deep Brooklyn crew assembled by Biggie. The first song she ever rapped on, 1995’s “Player’s Anthem,” released when Kim was 17, established Junior M.A.F.I.A. as the latest formidable rap squad and set the tone for Kim as a soloist. Hardly anyone questioned her talent or ability. She raps so hard on the Hard Core track “Queen B@#$H” that she runs out of breath by the end of the verse: “Sippin’ Zinfandels up in Chippendales/Shoppin’ Bloomingdales for Prada bags, female Don Dada has…” Still, fans and critics wondered how much of Kim was really Biggie, which made it hard to talk about Lil’ Kim without talking about him.

“Just being the girl in the group was majestic,” says Kierna Mayo, the founding editor-in-chief of Honey (Kim covered the magazine twice). “Kim was four-eleven. She’s tiny. It made her that much more profound, when you juxtapose the largeness of Big against Kim’s small frame. He was a Svengali of sorts, and she was his loyal concubine. And it was dramatic and sometimes tragic to see.” A week after Hard Core’s release, another rapper, Foxy Brown, released her own debut album, Ill Na Na, creating a double dilemma: Kim and Foxy’s new blueprint for success liberated women’s dirty thoughts, but it was all about male fantasy.

 

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