I wore pasties on election night. I also joined the scores of women wearing pantsuits, but it was the pasties that stood out. The pantsuit made sense—it was a thing women were doing to sartorially support Hillary Clinton. The pasties, though, they were both for and because of Lil’ Kim. I thought I was about to help America elect its first female president, so I wanted to give a nod to a woman who has actually influenced my fashion choices and my feminism: America’s first mainstream female gangsta rapper, Kimberly Jones.
When her debut album Hard Core dropped in November 1996, women were still relatively buried in hip-hop, relegated to pop-crossover tracks or neo-soul consciousness raisers—which translated into no credibility and no listeners, respectively. But Kim? She was cool and popular, and what’s blasé now was new and exciting in the ‘90s: Tiny little Kim rapping about guns and doing time while she also insisted men know exactly where her clit is and make her come. Kim wearing such bold outfits that people questioned her sanity. Kim with her diamonds and dollars and Dolce and dick.
Some amalgamation of porn star, power broker, and kingpin of the block, she reconfigured familiar faces into something wholly unfamiliar. Whether because we were made to believe it, or because it was actually so, she was received as if the world had never seen anything like her before. Little me surely hadn’t. She was a totally new possibility model.
I was feeling Kim from the moment I saw her: I was eight, and she was riding a private jet, kickin’ the rilli with her peeps (me) all day, telling me that DKNY was jiggy (“Player’s Anthem”). She was hanging out with Mary J. Blige (already a queen in my mind, mostly thanks to “Real Love”) in a beauty salon after hours, getting fed fruit by shirtless, built men (“Get Money”). She was friends with Puff Daddy, walking down an up escalator in a dark Prada (or something) pantsuit and bold, white heels (“No Time”). She was rocking a red fur, over a red bikini, with red shoes, all to match her red hair, while she danced on a red floor. It was like that Emerald City scene in The Wiz (“Crush On You”).
But where I saw Kim as something newly aspirational, others saw her excessively glam, hypersexualized image as another case of female potential stifled (or recycled). Seven months after Hard Core’s release, notable feminist scholar bell hooks sat down with Kim to interview her for a cover story in Paper Magazine. “The only new thing happening here is that it took so long for a hip-hop girl to make the down-and-dirty talk pay her bills big-time,” hooks writes. Recognizing some agency on the rapper’s part, she determines that Kim’s "real life" sex thing is just about pure and simple delight in the body. “But when it comes to how the boys in charge package her, it's the same old shit—boring straight male porn fantasy.” In the end, for hooks, Kim is still just a tortured, tragic tool. (“I’m getting tired of the writers who only want to write about the freaky stuff, as though that was the only side of my personality that mattered,” Kim says in a telling 1997 interview with The Source. “I think I’m a smart girl, but you wouldn’t know it from the stories that always come out.”)
This “packaging” is really apparent in Hard Core’s promo poster, which was plastered all over Brooklyn: Kim’s wearing a leopard print boudoir set (bra, panties, and sheer robe with fur trim), crouching in front of something that doesn’t matter because all of your attention is drawn directly to her crotch. She’s in a wide catcher’s stance; her hands rest on respective knees, each pointing in opposite directions. She’s staring dead straight at the camera, which shoots from below, so you have to look up at her body. Although this is the most “natural” we’ll ever see Kim in album-related art, there’s no question about what’s being sold here.
It’s well-known that Notorious B.I.G., Kim’s lover and mentor, played a huge role in some of the most significant and powerful transformations in hip-hop culture, which are easy to see playing out directly through Lil’ Kim—musically, and in her body. In the earlier part of her career as a part of Biggie’s Junior M.A.F.I.A., Kim mostly rocked high-end, fuller-coverage fashion. Once Kim was determined to be the breakout star of that group, Biggie decided she needed to shed her haute image for a bolder one that would better complement the calculated persona he had designed for her, which was basically “sexy bad bitch.”
Deliberate not simply because sex sells, Kim as sexy gangstress also helped Biggie—whose career was just beginning to blow up—sell himself. In fact, Big’s image relied on Kim’s to work: He needed her to be as sexy as possible, so he (as recently crowned king of East Coast gangsta rap) could be the conqueror. And if she’s a G, so is he.
Before I caught some nigga's disease, got caught with his kis
Big scooped a young bitch off her knees
Threw me at high-priced Beams
Face on TVs, platinum CDs
- “Big Momma Thang”
Rolling Stone included Hard Core, which was certified double platinum in 2001, on its list of Essential Recordings of the ‘90s. But it’s funny, what time can do to music that once moved you, and the artists who made it. For the sake of due diligence, I think it only right to address the elephant in the room: It’s hard to write about an icon when they’ve so dramatically, surgically altered their image. You want to write about the change, or how it has shaped your perception of them. But the thing is, the change almost always happens after the iconography has been solidified, adding an element of dissonance to the whole thing that’s different from the regular dissonance conjured up by universal factors like aging.
Kim’s appearance started changing in the early 2000s. Her boobs got bigger, her nose slimmer. Even her accent has changed. She sounds, well, whiter. A video recently surfaced of Kim admitting, during a 2012 interview with Vlad TV, that she’s “all mixed up,” after asserting that she’s really “a Spanish girl just trapped in a Black girl’s body.”
In 2002’s Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem (five years after the Paper interview) bell hooks wrote that Kim is a “cartoon-like caricature of whiteness” and that she currently resembles “a cheap version of the white woman she adores.” What’s notable here is that Kim has admitted to being told she’s not all that by men in the past: “They all liked the same women. They always liked that light-skin, European-looking girl. And I never was her.” In other words, they tell her that she’s worthless. She believes them. Toni Morrison isn’t wrong, then, when she writes in The Bluest Eye that the concept of beauty is one of “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.”
It ain't a day of my life that rolls by
That I don't get high, sit back, and wan' cry
- “M.A.F.I.A. Land”
“It makes me wanna holler every time I hear someone ludicrously tout Lil’ Kim as a Generation Now feminist,” writes Raquel Cepeda in the Village Voice, “thus veiling the incredibly low self-esteem neatly tucked away in purple pasties, blue contacts, and blond wigs.” How do you talk about Lil’ Kim if you don’t mention her ever-shifting appearance? At this point, her sculpted face and whitened skin are hard to look past.
Kim’s visage might be the most salient part of “Lil’ Kim,” if young people are any barometer of cool or culture. A friend of mine who teaches at Dillard University, a historically Black liberal arts college in New Orleans, recently asked her first-year writing students what they thought about the rapper. “I ain't know about Kim until her titty was all out, and then she turned white, and then I ain't like her,” a girl, who was probably born around the time Hard Core came out, replied.
It's notable that this young person would invoke Kim’s skin color as a basis for dislike, because something similar happened to Kim’s father as a young boy. He was the darkest one in his family, and his mother, Kim's grandmother, would say things like, "Get out of here you Black fucker.” I think about that every time someone mocks the way she looks.
It don't take nothin' for you to love me, babe
It don't take nothin' for you to love me
- “Spend A Little Doe”
Kim in VIBE, 1997: “I think the people who have problems with me are those who can’t accept the realness of life. And if you can’t accept that, then you haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through, and if you haven’t gone through it, then you can’t judge me. If you don’t know where I’ve been, then how do you know who I am.”
Kim’s parents got divorced when she was ten years old. She stayed with her dad in Brooklyn and her mom lived out of the trunk of a car. Her dad got remarried when Kim was fifteen and moved his new wife to a new home in New Jersey, but told Kim she couldn’t come. She roamed the streets of Brooklyn, crashing with friends when she could and neighborhood dope-boys when she couldn’t. Eventually she stopped going to school and adopted a hustler’s mindset. She ran with drug dealers doing what she had to do to survive. In interviews, she’s insinuated that she was forced to do some things she didn’t want to do.
She glamorizes, downplays even, this struggle in much of her music, but you know what they say about life giving you lemons. The Kim of Hard Core won’t entertain shame, but often celebrates survival. Her sexuality becomes a tool necessary for staying alive. The pictures Kim’s lyrics conjure in the mind’s eye are pictures that position her as powerful: She's fucking popular R&B stars. She's seeking revenge on men who do her dirty. She's telling them to lavish her with diamonds and cash before she even thinks about letting them touch her pussy. Maybe she’s pushing back against the misrecognition she experienced at the hands of society and her own community, maybe she’s over-identifying with her mode of survival. But how much of whatever it is is really Kim?
I’ve been researching Kimberly Jones for weeks and I’m still not exactly sure when she was born. Most agree that it was on July 11, but the year? Sources are shoddy. An anthology of hip-hop history I found at the library says both 1974 and '75. 1976, says her mom on a VH1 special. Kim admits that those responsible for crafting her image had her lie about her age when she first appeared on the scene because her persona was so provocative; she says so herself during an interview with NYC’s home of hip-hop radio, Hot 97. But she never says in that interview exactly how old she is—only that she’s a couple years older than Nicki Minaj, who was born in 1982.
Looking back on interviews from the ‘90s paints a picture of a Kim that just wants to be seen. Responding to an interviewer from Details who calls her a trash-talking little girl, Kim says, "First off, I'm not a little girl. I’m twenty-one years old and I’m, I’m ... I don’t think I’m gonna be able to do this interview. I’m really upset and you're making me more upset. You've got to respect my feelings and talk to me like a woman."
Listening to that Hot 97 interview, I wondered if Kim can even see herself anymore. In the mirror, in the streets that raised her. Anywhere.
Like Kim the person, her old neighborhood is not the same as it once was. It reminds me of a tree well into its fall turning: Take the G to Classon Avenue and the first thing you’ll see upon reaching street level is a Citibike docking station—a clear marker of gentrification in Brooklyn these days. (When the privately owned bike sharing system made it to my own former neighborhood, I was forced to move out of my apartment so a developer could turn three apartments into six and raise the rent to something I couldn’t afford.) The projects across the street from the bikes look the same, but just down the block is a new Zagat-rated doughnut shop that slings matcha and hibiscus flower donut holes to Bed-Stuy’s newer inhabitants, many of whom are whiter and wealthier than Kim and her neighbors were in the ‘90s. Shuffling through those streets once familiar to Kim one night, trying to retrace some of her steps, I passed a middle-aged white woman standing on the same stoop where Biggie first told Kim she was beautiful. Another white woman was unburdening a luxury car of fancy, blood-red luggage, preparing to carry it up that stoop, which is also where Big and Kim used to smoke blunts together. I realized that Kim’s new skin color reflects her old neighborhood’s new demographics. To assimilate or not has always been the Black community’s lament. We all know that sometimes it’s forced upon us.
“I got a lot to conquer,” Kim admits later in the VIBE profile. “I ain’t at peace. When I get at peace, y’all gon know.”
Maybe Kim has never gotten there. Or maybe, she’s at peace now. She has a young daughter; she just wrapped up the Bad Boy Reunion stadium tour with Puff Daddy; after the award show had taken a five-year break, Kim was one of four acts awarded at VH1’s 2016 Hip Hop Honors; she’s publicly found a friend in Kim Kardashian. Despite her distorted appearance, she seems, dare I say, happy. But that’s not for me to judge, and maybe it’s not even happiness I’m registering. Perhaps it’s survival. Because Kim has made it, and nothing is more radical than how you survive. That VIBE piece closes by quoting Kim: “I have to live. I just have to live.” At the time, Kim was still a brown-skinned baddie rockin’ rainbow-colored wigs. But she was also in mourning; Biggie, her whole world, had been murdered just months before the interview took place. The pain caused by his death is raw and as obvious as a self-awareness that some argue Kim no longer has: “He ain’t dead by hisself. We’ll be there soon. We livin’ blind. Why can’t a motherfuckin’ Black person live?”