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Each One, Teach One | Honoring the legacy of Lil’ Kim

Undeniably, Lil’ Kim is a bonafide trailblazer who made her presence not only seen and heard, but known and respected, in her legendary career.

As KRS-One articulated throughout his catalog and in his many teachings, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” As the culture continues to evolve today, many feel it’s not only important, but vital to preserve and honor the fundamental elements: Graffiti, emceeing, breakdancing, deejaying and knowledge. This column called “Each One, Teach One” aims to do exactly that. It will highlight various lessons that can be passed between new and old generations alike.

The Notorious B.I.G. made a very wise decision 25 years ago when he invited Lil’ Kim to join his beloved hometown crew Junior M.A.F.I.A. To wonder what would have happened if the self-proclaimed king and queen of hip hop never crossed paths on that fateful day is a cruel installment of a hypothetical game I personally never wish to play. Both went on to make history — together and in their own respective careers — and the culture continues to feel such an impact decades later.

Undeniably, Lil’ Kim is a bonafide trailblazer who made her presence not only seen and heard, but known and respected. The introduction of the star altered the landscape of hip hop forever, as she created her own unapologetic blueprint and helped pave the way for other women to navigate the genre’s rampant misogyny in order to claim their own stake in the game. While artists who came before her time, such as Roxanne Shanté, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, are unequivocally heralded as pioneers for women in hip hop in their own right, Lil’ Kim embraced her sexuality and femininity in a way that was a stark contrast at the time from other women artists who — for an array of reasons — leaned more into a neutral or toned-down space when it came to such taboo topics. The relationship between gender and hip hop calls for a much more nuanced conversation, and as the subject of sexuality experiences a continued call for de-stigmatization and revolution, the work Lil’ Kim put in must be considered and celebrated.

As she combined her raunchy lyrics with empowered delivery and explicit authenticity, during the ‘90s and ‘00s especially, it was nearly impossible not to take note of how she challenged double standards and highlighted sex-positivity in a way that was as polarizing as it was refreshing. From her iconic fashion statements to her versatility on wax as a ferociously talented rapper, the legacy of Lil’ Kim is multifaceted, rooted in fearlessness, ownership, and bravado. In advance of Lil’ Kim adding BET’s I Am Hip Hop Award to her decorated trophy case on Oct. 8, let’s take a look at some integral life lessons that can be taken from her school of self-expression below.

It’s all in the details.

From her mannerisms to her ample personas to her innovative taste in fashion, Lil’ Kim teaches us how it is absolutely necessary to pay attention to the details. She is an artist who operates with intention at the forefront, and she moves in strategy and Swarovski crystals, alike. On the fashion front, each and every one of her distinctive looks can be celebrated for the details that went into them, ranging from the memorable and mesmerizing purple pasty/jumpsuit combination she donned at the 1999 MTV Music Video Awards to the leopard-print bikini and fur she wore in the promotional photos for her debut album, Hard Core. Simply put, Lil’ Kim is masterful when it comes to honing the importance of detail.

Self-expression is everything.

Lil’ Kim not only found her voice, but has expertly harnessed the power of it. Her decision to take ownership of her individuality is an undeniable theme woven deeply into the fabric of everything she has done throughout her vibrant career. As showcased by the unabashed vulgarity in her music, there is a strength that can be found when you not only embrace your self-expression, but amplify it regardless of what others may think. Lil’ Kim stands in her truth in a way that is inspiring, encouraging others to do the same without compromise.

Loyalty runs deep.

Lil’ Kim is as loyal as they come. By definition, loyalty is the quality of remaining faithful to a commitment or oath regardless of circumstance. In 2005, she showcased exactly that when she was sentenced to one year in prison for lying to a jury about her friends’ involvement in a shooting that took place four years prior. Her fourth album, The Naked Truth, was released while she was incarcerated, allowing her to keep her momentum going strong. Upon her release, Lil’ Kim wore an orange jumpsuit on stage at the 2006 VMAs, a move that both signified her comeback would be rooted in her unwavering nonchalance and displayed how she didn’t regret her decision to remain loyal with pressure applied. The rap icon’s loyalty to where she came from and what she stands for is yet another component of her legacy that cannot be questioned.

There is value in vulnerability.

Being who you are is not an easy choice and exploring your identity doesn’t come without hardship, sacrifice, and pain. However, being vulnerable is arguably the most valuable, honest, and important thing we can do, especially when it comes to taking ownership of who we are as people. Lil’ Kim’s journey with her own identity and individuality has been dissected in the spotlight throughout the entire duration of her career, leaving fans with plenty to learn from and meditate on. She has experienced countless ups and downs publicly, and putting herself out with vulnerability despite what she’s gone through is something that can never be taken from her. From opening up about abuses she’s suffered to facing unrelenting exploitation in the tabloids, Lil’ Kim’s individuality demands respect, and to view her vulnerability as a weakness is severely misinformed.

Women are more than capable of supporting other women, believe it or not.

Lil’ Kim embraced the notion of being the “only female in my crew” during Puff Daddy’s 1997 collaborative smash hit “It’s All About the Benjamins,” a line that can be interpreted as her acknowledging for the naysayers that she can run and rap with the best of them regardless of her gender. However, she also made ample room for lifting up other women – a concept that hip hop has historically written off as impossible by obsessively focusing on the narrow myth that women are incapable of such and would rather focus solely on beefing with each other. While there is a time and a place for that, as exemplified by her classic feud with Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim saw the value of uniting some of the most talented women in the game, as well. In 1997, she dropped her highly regarded posse cut “Ladies Night” alongside Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Angie Martinez. The song challenged the status quo that there can only be one woman dominating the spotlight at a time, an unfortunate stereotype that is still being perpetuated, fought against, and discussed over two decades later.

As Beyoncé worded it best in 2017 when she recreated five of Lil’ Kim’s most quintessential looks for an unforgettable Halloween: “Hip hop would not be the same without our original Queen B.”

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