Why Lil' Kim matters more than we thought and is even better than we remember
Author’s note: Every piece of music linked here is almost miraculously unsafe for work.
The Notorious B.I.G. has meant a great deal to my life, so much that I wish I could open everything I write with that remark. His was the first music I ever felt like I needed to make a deep series of moral compromises in order to love, and for that I want to publicly thank him. I love Biggie’s “Unbelievable” like I love the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” not because I agree with it, but rather because I don’t and I still want to listen to it, and thinking about why makes me to think about where great music happens: the crunchy sonority of a line like “those that rushes my clutches / get put on crutches/ get smoked like Dutches,” massaged through that magnificent voice; the nimble lilt of Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar as it richochets off that xylophone.
I’ve been thinking a lot about B.I.G. recently because I’ve been thinking about Lil’ Kim, and I’ve been thinking about Lil’ Kim because I’ve been thinking about Nicki Minaj, and still don’t know what to think about Nicki Minaj. She feels like a logjam of simulacra, and she’s hard to talk about because it often feels like we’ve already talked about her while talking about someone else. That isn’t not to say she’s unoriginal—in fact, that might be where her originality lies, a sort of postmodern human jukebox perpetually winking us towards the traditions from which she sprang.
Her one fit of undeniable greatness came when she absolutely murdered the final two-plus minutes of Kanye West’s “Monster.” When I first heard it, after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I instantly thought of Lil’ Kim, the predecessor Minaj seemed most obviously winking towards in that moment, right down to the pink wig, thick ass, give ‘em whiplash. It was the first time in a while that I’d thought about Lil’ Kim, and I wondered what happened to all that, and then a few weeks ago I watched the Super Bowl, and since then I’ve been wondering if maybe we should start talking more about Lil’ Kim.
Kim herself is hard to talk about: She’s one of those artists whom we tend to think of as having a “moment,” like the Sex Pistols, or Musical Youth, because they’re weird and unique but also because no one since has really tried to “be” them because, well, why would they. She wouldn’t have happened without Biggie, and by that I don’t just mean that she got her start as his Bonnie Parker-cum-Tammi Terrell in Junior M.A.F.I.A., or even the longstanding rumors that he wrote the lion’s share of her lyrics. B.I.G. changed hip-hop in a lot of ways, perhaps most influentially by exploding rapping about crime into an entire metaphorical landscape of power relations. No musician has ever been a more obsessed with power: wanting it, having it, losing it, keeping it, wielding it. Kim shared this obsession, but instead of crime her chosen metaphor was sex.
And oh my how. The first time I heard Lil’ Kim’s 1996 debut album Hard Core I was 17 years old, sitting in the kitchen of a friend whose parents were out of town. We listened to it the way middle-school kids consume pornography: surreptitiously, excitedly, guiltily. It was a weird, crazy music that existed in some universe where firearms and female orgasms were mutually dependent—if I’d been aware of the existence of a word like “transgressive” I might have used it. I wasn’t sure I liked it and wasn’t sure I was supposed to; I’m still not entirely sure I’m supposed to, and I certainly still can’t listen to “Not Tonight” without blushing.
Thanks to some Herculean feats of radio-friendly editing Hard Core produced a few hits, most notably “No Time” and “Big Momma Thang,” both of which became minor classics of their day. After B.I.G’s murder Kim sort of spiraled, taking four years to release a follow-up to Hard Core (a delay that didn’t help with the ghostwriting rumors). In 1998, Lauryn Hill released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, heralded at the time as a glass-ceiling moment for feminism in rap. Lauryn was refined and politicized, aggressively disinterested in speculating on the intersections of mink coats, blowjobs and cocaine trafficking. When Kim came back in 2000 with The Notorious K.I.M., the album was already past its prime and just not very good; then a few years later came a perjury conviction and prison stint. Lil’ Kim’s moment, it appeared, was up.
But after gazing upon Nicki Minaj—or, hell, even M.I.A.—at the Super Bowl I’m not sure that it was, or even is. Is Lil’ Kim’s imprint on rap 16 years after Hard Core comparable to that of Lauryn’s 14 years after Miseducation, and is this a development we should greet neutrally? Was Hard Core—essentially a concept album about the metaphysical implications of receiving cunnilingus—a feminist statement? Does a bottomless appetite for rhyming the words “Amaretto,” “cheddar” and “Beretta” carry a critique of gender and sexual politics? I don’t ask these questions rhetorically.
Or maybe Kim was just a gimmick and Minaj is just another iteration, and Hard Core’s porn-rap wasn’t so much a critique of hip-hop misogyny as it was a limit extreme of that misogyny. And maybe a Super Bowl halftime show bearing the Queen Bee’s DNA speaks only to our culture’s ability to absorb evermore advanced forms of sexual degradation as it lurches towards some deadening porn-ocracy—a truly unexciting suggestion.
But it’s an unexciting suggestion summarily dismissed by “Queen Bitch,” the best track off of Hard Core that ranks with the very best music of its era, period. Here the power economies of sex and crime collide in perfect synthesis, and this strange artist who never entirely made sense suddenly makes all the sense in the world. It’s impossibly obscene, with Kim hurling creative epithets like “baby drinkers” (let that wash over you) amid lyrics like “bet I wet ya / like hurricanes and typhoons / got buffoons eatin’ my pussy / while I watch cartoons,” a bit of wordplay whose final turn revels in its own outlandishness. My favorite moment comes near the song’s end: “my shit’s straight like 9:15, y’nahmean?” It’s a line almost certainly written by Biggie—no one else had such command of esoteric allusion, or such arrogance that it was on you to know what the fuck he was talking about (hint: analog clock). But Kim absolutely owns it, and everything else around it.
If Lil’ Kim had a moment that moment had its moments and might still have its moments, and those moments make us see the forest through the trees and realize that there are a lot of ways for music to be great, and some of those ways are messy and complicated and richer for that complexity. It’s music we make compromises in order to love because we’d be foolish not to, and because doing so makes us more complete even as it makes us blush, and forever changes the way we watch cartoons.