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Beyond Earshot: the forgotten gender politics of Lil’ Kim

Beyond Earshot is a new series by Jacob Seferian examining the cultural impact of music, past and present. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter

“Say my name baby, before you nut,” demands the husky voice of Kimberly Jones, better known as Lil’ Kim, in her 1996 track “No Time.” Reminding us, as hip-hop giants like to do, that at the end of the day it’s all about power and pussy. Rocking fur and spitting filth, Lil’ Kim’s brand of raunch was more than just shock factor: it was gender politics.

Lil’ Kim’s legacy has taken a hit in the last decade thanks to extensive problematic plastic surgery, and a beef with Nicki Minaj that comes across mostly as a fading star’s attempt to stay relevant. Perhaps the most cringeworthy moment in diss track history was when she released a seemingly homemade version of Beyoncé and Minaj’s “Flawless (Remix),” via Twitter, inserting her own voice over the track’s beat to attack Minaj without incitement.

Controversy, however, does not negate Lil’ Kim’s status as a key figure in hip-hop history. Her debut album Hard Core remains one of the most provocative and lyrically radical rap records to date, and its legacy has never been more relevant.

Ass arched, all-fours on a polar bear carcass beside a bottle of champagne in a shimmering one piece, 21 year-old Lil’ Kim adorns the cover of Hard Core. Head tilted, she stares at you seductively, beckoning you to join her on a 15-track journey that will leave you scrubbing (and maybe touching) yourself in the shower. The album also possesses arguably the greatest opening line ever recorded: “I used to be scared of the dick / now I throw lips to the shit,” immediately establishing that you’ve entered Lil’ Kim’s bedroom, where she undoubtedly calls all the shots.

It’s a gloriously dirty trip. An alternate universe where roles are reversed and women possess the power. A land of gangstresses meditating on their conquests, both of paper and skin, and Lil’ Kim, referring to herself as Queen Bee (long before Beyoncé adopted the epithet) relishes in her dominance bar after bar.

“The moral of the story is this / you ain’t lickin’ this, you ain’t hittin’ this,” she spits on “Not Tonight,” an anthem to female pleasure, which asserts that every gangster out there better be eating their partner(s) out if they expect sexual favors in return. The hook is a gaggle of women chanting, “I don’t want dick tonight, eat my pussy right!” Isn’t that magical?

Humor aside, in a genre that tends to treat women as spoils of a successful male hustle, a female rapping about equaling the sexual playing field is a deeply political statement. And Lil’ Kim didn’t stop there.

From anal to Plan B, no topic was off limits. Tracks like “We Don’t Need It” and “Big Momma Thang” engaged in a social dialogue about women’s sexual agency. A female MC spitting about busting a nut, or more specifically, her nut, was radical then and remains radical now. Turning the hip-hop narrative on its ear, Lil’ Kim became the pimp, the objectifier. In her eyes, men were the disposable ones (“Suck him to sleep, I took the keys to the jeep / Tell him ‘I’ll be back,’ go fuck with some other cats,”) vessels for female satisfaction rather than the other way around. And if a player didn’t perform his “duty,” Queen Bee’s vengeance was swift, as she kicked their asses to the curb.

Now, don’t get this twisted. Lil’ Kim wasn’t exactly advocating for gender equality, but rather rapping about female dominance. But before you condemn her for spewing divisive rhetoric, consider the era she was operating within. The mid-1990’s was the heyday of gangsta rap, and marked a coast-to-coast hip-hop explosion that would produce some of the genre’s most memorable MCs—most of them male.

Hip-hop became to the mainstream what rock was in the 60’s, if you will: the music kids blasted that parents misunderstood. And the rappers themselves became heroes, gods even. This meant it was Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac’s world, and in their world it took extremes to get people’s attention. Fuck, to even receive a little buzz Lil’ Kim had to link up with Biggie, if that doesn’t articulate how stacked the chips were then against female hip-hop artists, I don’t know what does. But while she may have been Biggie’s protégé, Lil’ Kim made it abundantly clear she would not be lost in his shadow.

It wasn’t only her message that made Lil’ Kim revolutionary, but how she expressed it. The girl was nasty. Withholding no detail from the listener, we got a play-by-play of exactly what went down, where, and how. She didn’t just say eat me out, she said, “Now kiss the lips without teeth.” Her fashion, in extension of her music, also emulated her love of taking it too far. She was every color of the rainbow in the music video for “Crush On You”, and let’s not (though how could we ever) forget her iconic 2001 VMA’s purple pasty look.

In 2017, it’s easy to downplay Lil’ Kim achievement with Hard Core—but Big Momma Thang was fearless, and her lyrics will still make you blush. The only downside is that perhaps it was an album so loud that it rendered the entire career that followed underwhelming. Like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, maybe Hard Core was the kind of record that set the bar too high for its creator, because even 20 years later, no female MC has ever come close to its level of thought-provoking, political vulgarity.

And although Nicki Minaj, the millennial answer to the female G.O.A.T., carries on the torch of gangstress, her bars seem positively PC in comparison to Kim’s obscenity. It’s a shame the pair seem to dislike one another so much, for both are prime examples of unapologetic female agency. The cover art of Minaj’s 2014 hit single “Anaconda” is reminiscent of the promotional poster for Hard Core, which likewise featured its artist squatting, legs spread in lingerie.

Maybe hip-hop hypersexualizes women, but Lil’ Kim sexualized herself. And thank god for that, because after 2000 years it was about time the roles were switched. Hard Core spent 47 weeks on the charts, so that’s 47 weeks worth of sexual dialogue fostered. The album has since been certified double platinum.

So let’s give credit where credit is due, because Lil’ Kim’s kind of nasty never goes out of style.

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