Hip-hop has always been a safe haven for those who went searching for tenderness in a world that had none to offer. Hidden between perfectly-poised paragraphs of unloading are pleas to be accepted, protected and revered. It’s where kids who have never left the confines of their zip code paint cinematic frames of the luxurious lives they plan to lead. Or where a girl from Brooklyn, who stands at only 4 feet 11 inches tall can rap herself into the company of “Zsa Zsa Gabor, Demi Moore, Prince[ss] Diana and all them rich bitches”. She can be irreverent, sexually autonomous and “kick sh*t like a n**** do”. And when that no longer suits her, she can crown herself Queen because she earned it.
If you haven’t guessed by now, the girl, in this case, grew into the woman that would become hip-hop’s most legendary female voice: Lil' Kim.
When I have the honour of speaking with Kim, it is clear that she has shown up sans her chosen veil of celebrity. She’s opted, instead, to show up as herself. Even over Zoom, Kim, who recently revealed she’s now being managed by Nick Cannon, is sweet, warm and honest — inviting, even. Her IRL demeanor is something that surprises people. “Everyone meets me and says ‘oh my God, I didn’t expect you to be like this’ because they came to know me through my music,” Kim says with a laugh.
I always say, you’re heading for trouble if I have to introduce you to Queen Bee. You don’t want to meet Queen Bee first.
I take the opportunity to ask her the difference between Kimberly Denise Jones (her given name), Lil' Kim (her previously mentioned more famously known moniker), and her other well-known title of Queen Bee. She answers, in a soft tone that is absent of the fire she brings to the microphone but just as powerful: “It’s funny because there’s these three different sides of me. I would say Kimberly Jones is that down to earth girl, that’s really who I am 24/7. Lil' Kim is who the world knows me to be and she’s definitely a part of Queen Bee but I always say, you’re heading for trouble if I have to introduce you to Queen Bee. You don’t want to meet Queen Bee first.”
And on this day, I don’t.
Sure, Kim is decked out in all the trappings of her royal namesake — her signature long jet Black hair, an asymmetric top revealing decolletage and looks like she could head straight to the set of a music video — but the reigning Vito Corleone of women in hip-hop has now turned her attention to reclaiming not only her narrative but the stories of other women. It’s why, in part, she’s chosen to lend her voice to BET’s American Gangster Trap Queens, a show that chronicles the rise and fall of the women at the forefront of some of the most powerful crime families in history.
“These women getting the platform to speak their truth and let people know ‘this is what I went through but this doesn’t define who I am’ is what’s so powerful about it and why I wanted to be part of it,” Kim says. “A lot of times we don’t get the opportunity to say that. Me being formerly incarcerated and having the same stories as some of these women, a lot of people don’t know who I am. They think they know me but they don’t at all. At all. I read stories about myself and all I can do is laugh because these people just don’t know me.”
The thing is, we don’t really know Lil' Kim. She’s a celebrity who rose to fame well before social media, and before it was commonplace to know the ins and outs of the daily lives of the people we admire. And since her reign at the top of the charts in the ‘90s, she’s kept a low profile. She’s become a mother, fought for her freedom for a year in federal prison on perjury charges and become a vocal champion of new artists across genres.
Early in her career, Kim was the subject of critiques for her hypersexual and explicit lyrics as well as her provocative fashion sense. When she burst onto the scene in 1994, she was just 20 years old. Kim was thrust into the limelight as a voice for girls who had to grow up quickly, and her voice rang out across blocks that never slept and in the rooms of girls who, too, had something to say when no one seemed to be listening.
Much to the chagrin of parents and community leaders, Kim was the one we chose to speak for us because when she spoke, people listened. She said what we were afraid to verbalise or were told to silence for the sake of decorum. While rappers like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte railed against words like “bitch” and “hoe”, Kim turned them on their head and reclaimed their power for herself. While her lyrics and clothes would now seem tame in 2021, when she was coming up, Kim didn’t have a blueprint. She carried a burden that many women in hip-hop today proudly hitch their wagons to with no risk, only reward. “Believe it or not, I am just starting to break through the barricade that I came across,” Kim shares. “When you first become successful, everything’s awesome and then ... here’s your test.”
And if life has been a classroom for anyone, it has been one for Kim.
As the “only female in her crew”, Junior M.A.F.I.A (a group formed by Kim’s close friend and partner, Biggie Smalls), she was not only tasked with being ‘one of the boys’ but she was also entangled in the battles that they took part in — like her being namechecked in the infamous beef between Smalls and rapper Tupac Shakur. As she garnered more success, Kim shared many similarities between her and the women linked to some of the most prominent street crews who are featured in Trap Queens. Take Tonesha Welch of the notorious Black Mafia Family (BMF), whose story is the focus of an episode of Trap Queens.
Welch spent five years in prison for laundering money made by her longtime boyfriend, and founder of BMF, Terry Flenory. Kim says it’s the story she resonates with most. “We were around the same people, we were in the same industry,” she explains, “So I understand all the adversities she faced in that type of business. I understand who she is and what she was trying to do under those circumstances. I just feel like we have the BMF story on TV, why not Tonesha’s too? Women who have had a really deep past need to have the chance to let people know who they are.”
It makes sense that a woman with ties to one of the most notable crime syndicates whose story has long been overshadowed by men would feel familiar to Kim — after all, it has been the same way for her for far too long. So much so, that Kim herself finds it hard to understand just how impactful her contributions to everything from music to fashion have been. When I gush over how much of hip-hop culture has been shaped by the moments she’s brought to life, she accepts it with a genuine appreciation before humbly saying, “I just never see what everyone else sees in me. I guess that’s funny.”
We both allow the weight of that admission to resonate with us. And then, she does what she always has for us: she lifts it into something positive. “But I guess that’s what makes me strive for more,” she adds.
I want all my sistas to feel some of the freedom that I felt when I got into the industry... But it’s a catch-22, because once you get in the industry, you become bound by what freed you.
From serving time to protect her friends to being respectability’s scapegoat — few artists have endured the amount of scrutiny she did at the height of their fame — Kim has taken it all in stride. She’s committed, it seems, to breaking glass windows with her fists no matter how much she may bleed. “I want all my sistas to feel some of the freedom that I felt when I got into the industry, the freedom to just really let go,” Kim says. “But it’s a catch-22, because once you get in the industry, you become bound by what freed you. It’s a lockdown and that’s what a lot of us women face.” Where many men in her industry simply rap about taking the lumps that come with being a boss, Kim has lived it. All of it. And where many men in her industry have crumbled, she seems to have survived graciously; something she attributes to her faith. “What kept me going was my spiritual side. At some point, I had no choice but to believe in God.”
As much as Kim’s music has been a Bible on how to reclaim the power that is far too often stripped from Black women, it has also been a saving grace. When the conversation turns to her music, Lil' Kim, the Don, enters the (Zoom) room. If she is unsure about what we see in her, she is clear that her work should be given its due. “I never put [my debut studio album] Hard Core in a running with any other albums, you know why? It’s a classic. It stands alone. You don’t put God in the category with nobody.”
At this moment, Kim demands her respect. Not with braggadocio but with an earnest reverence for her contribution to the culture. Though she admits to not being able to listen to her albums all the way through, there is one that she allows herself to sit with, “La Bella Mafia,” she says of her third album, the first after she severed ties with Junior M.A.F.I.A. “That was a pivotal moment in my career. I always compare it to Janet Jackson’s Control album because there was no guidance for me. There was no Puffy, there was no Biggie. I had to do it myself and I had to do it quickly.” La Bella Mafia, for many people, proved Kim’s ability to tell a story that was her own. It saw her boldly claim her rightful place on the Mount Rushmore of music’s greatest acts and offered audiences a chance to see Kim for the woman she’d become.
It was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
But later, we would. Lil' Kim would become a footnote in hip-hop history, only mentioned as an asterisk to prop up the careers of other women in rap. Culture moves forward at a rapid pace and people move with it. The industry decides it’s time for something new and pretty soon, everyone agrees. Even the best of the best find it hard to escape this fate. Kim knows what it’s like to have the adoration of an audience in the palm of your hands to see it disappear. But there has not been one inch of the culture that has gone untouched by Kim’s influence.
We see her in every colourful wig snatched straight from her iconic “Crush On You” video. We hear her in every perfectly penned prose a rap girl spits in hopes that we’ll be yelling her lyrics decades down the line. We catch her in our own reflections whenever we decide to show up at our sexiest and dare someone to tell us to tone it down. So, the next time you think about the way we’ve all abided under the safety of hip-hop, or when names get dropped in the GOAT conversation, don’t forget Kimberly Denise Jones, the woman who gave us everything she had.
All hail the Queen.