When discussing Kimberly Denise Jones’ influential role as the de facto blueprint for her commercial successors in female hip hop, most get the basics right. Since her debut with Junior M.A.F.I.A. in 1995, the mainstream protocol for femcees changed—not only did their bars need to align with the men’s, their images alone sold records based on sex appeal, urban couture fashion senses, and otherworldly personalities. Lil’ Kim’s legacy has brought the rap game an archetype of the “acquisitive gangstress”—a woman willing to ride or die for all the things she cherishes and loves.
Interestingly enough, Lil’ Kim barely receives sufficient credit for navigating the multiple personalities she’s invented and introduced throughout her discography. Many attribute this style and skill of rap to Nicki Minaj for the women’s division, but lyricism (and continued mentions throughout projects up until now) proves that Lil’ Kim had been lightyears ahead on yet another trend. From her lieutenant position as the M.A.F.I.A.’s Big Momma to a collectible Black Barbie, different characters have comprised the entire Queen Bee entity—each of her projects graduating their importance for her life stories, game changing, and beefs.
In 1995, Lil’ Kim received the first opportunity to showcase her first persona. On Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s first commercial single, “Player’s Anthem,” the rapstress lyrically introduces Big Momma, a petite boss who “shoots the game to all you Willies and criminals.” Though her physical stature is diminutive, Big Momma allowed for Kim to brashly go toe-to-toe against her crew members The Notorious B.I.G. and Lil’ Cease. Following “Player’s Anthem” on Conspiracy‘s tracklist, “I Need You Tonight” knighted Lil’ Kim as The Lieutenant, with Trife asking Big Momma if everything is alright.
By the time of her 1996 debut Hard Core, things were more than fine. After the album’s steamy adults-only “Intro In A-Minor,” comes “Big Momma Thang,” where Kim flexes as a Madam accustomed to the finer riches in life and traveling to Switzerland and the Bahamas. She’s raw in her sexuality, her prowess matching the likes of 90s adult film stars Heather Hunter and Janet Jacme with a 70s porno spin. The hook of the song advances Big Momma from the supporting feminine deity of the M.A.F.I.A. into solo royalty: “You wanna be this Queen Bee, but you can’t be.”
Lil Kim’s first solo single, “No Time,” delves further into the materialistic side of Big Momma. The waltzy jazz piano—which flows like the Cristal champagne name-dropped throughout the track— shows Big Momma learned her ways from the matriarch with a similar name in the Broadway musical, Chicago. She opens her verse with a deep husky voice, listing expensive whips and gives herself a “rich bitches” club membership already acquired by Zsa Zsa Gabor, Demi Moore, and Princess Diana. Lil’ Kim, the Big Momma, gives hip hop some class in an untraditional manner— fulfilling her goal of being the genre’s “Black Erica Kane,” based on the soap character portrayed by Susan Lucci on All My Children.
As Hard Core progresses, Big Momma falls to the background so that the Queen Bitch can take over. “Spend A Little Doe” asserts “go by the name of Lil’ Kim the Queen Bitch,” a reference to her never snitching as Biggie wanted on his Ready To Die cut “Everyday Struggle.” With real-life matters, Lil’ Kim had been a bit furious about B.I.G.’s marriage to Faith Evans, as it seemed he reneged on his promise to give her the ring. Hard Core channels that frustration as Lil’ Kim slowly dissipates from the woman constantly standing for him—as she mentions: “Kill a nigga for my nigga by any means bitch, murder scene bitch” on “Queen Bitch”—to someone who self-righteously runs rap on her own, as “Crush on You” rightfully calls “Lil’ Kim, the Queen Bee, so you best take heed!”
After the groundbreaking success of Hard Core, Kim kept the Queen Bee shtick and inspired a musical movement of women fully embracing that persona’s rhetoric. Mary J. Blige ended up sampling “Queen Bitch” on her Share My World midtempo “I Can Love You,” which featured the rapper abbreviating her moniker to Q-B. That Q-B role represented a leader of a team, most likely an allusion to a football quarterback. She wasn’t on some “following shit” as suggested in Mobb Deep’s New York anthem “Quiet Storm.” Remy Ma would eventually interpolate the song on their 2017 collab “Wake Me Up.”
The Notorious B.I.G.’s death in 1997 rocked Kim’s foundation so much that she had to take a three-year hiatus and redesign her career to model after his legacy. His self-titled posthumous single found the femcee raptured by his ghost at the start of 2000. “Who that Queen Bitch, keep her glass filled to the rim,” inquires the pint-sized rapper before answering “The Notorious K-I to the M.” She goes on to acknowledge his murder (“things done changed”), but informs “we continue to reign as the King and Queen of hip-hop.”
Her second studio album continued this narrative, formally introducing the world to the lifestyle of the newly-recharged Notorious K.I.M. At the time of the album’s release, Foxy Brown had positioned herself as the alternative challenger to Lil’ Kim, but her flow and image on Chyna Doll noticeably got similar to the porno-raunch perfected by her rival. Not only was the persona of the Notorious K.I.M. meant to be an agent for mourning, but also defined her style as a bit rougher and gangster compared to Foxy’s.
Starting with “Lil’ Drummer Boy,” this album played up to the dramatics exhibited on Notorious B.I.G.’s final studio album Life After Death. Kim’s flow becomes steely, at times resembling the callous, conceited nature of her deceased mentor. Sternly she addresses those envious of her A-class reign by saying, “I got to save the world / The first female king and they mad ’cause I’m a girl.” She also introduces her style of playfully singing along with the music as a means to mock. On “Who’s Number One,” the QB blends her Big Momma lightness with some of Notorious K.I.M.’s rapping arsenal, transforming the former personality to “B-I-G M-A-M-A,” representing a more abrasive and curt attitude. “Suck My Dick” properly finds the rapstress devoiding her usual brand of femininity for a brusque relentlessness of masculinity. That move exhibited that not only did she view imitating women as her competition, but also the men in the game who backed those individuals. Lil’ Kim wasn’t just saying she’s the best female rapper with “Suck My Dick,” but the best alive, period, after B.I.G.
“Single Black Female” takes its name after the 1992 thriller Single White Female, where a lonely woman tries to assume her roommate’s personality in order to gain her life. Lil’ Kim’s vibrato gets deeper as she calls out her imitators (“I see y’all colorful minks and things”) over a beat that’s reminiscent of B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts.” There’s also a refute of the B.I.G. ghostwriting accusations she continuously faced, with her interpolating “still that’s not all / [bitches] have the gall” from his Ready To Die staple “My Downfall.” At the end, she dedicates the song to Hedy, the impersonating character from Single White Female.
By the time of “Revolution,” Lil’ Kim gets into the mood of Life After Death, professing she’s “the rap Rambo.” On “Notorious K.I.M.” she fully embodies B.I.G. with him spelling the adjective of their joint monikers during the chorus. She continues taking shots at Foxy Brown and mentions that Shyne suspiciously sounds like B.I.G. Coincidentally, she executes the legend’s hefty and breathily-paced flow—sounding like a “heavyweight champ” as she mentioned at the beginning of the song.
With her sophomore effort comes a bit of foreshadowed irony in two cuts, “How Many Licks” and “Aunt Dot.” The former song introduced us to the original version of the Black Barbie, while the latter showcased her vengeful alter ego of the same name. On The Notorious K.I.M., the rapstress establishes a fresher identity—not only as the spawn of a late great emcee, but also a multifaceted individual.
“How Many Licks” pushed Kim further into her role as a sex symbol, and one fully aware of the Y2K times. In the visual, she plays three edible sex dolls: Candy Doll struts on a runway modeling a primped blonde wig and hot pink pants; Pin-Up Kim wears aquamarine in reference to a lyric; and Nightrider Kim drives a futuristic car like David Hasslehoff, thriving in an all black catsuit. In 2003, on “The Jump Off,” from her following album, La Bella Mafia, Lil’ Kim classifies this trend as “Black Barbie dressed in Bulgari.”
Before the existence of Nicki Minaj’s Roman, Lil’ Kim gave us Aunt Dot, the menacing side to her rap personality. On the song, Aunt Dot sends her school-aged daughter Lil’ Shanice to recruit Kim since those on the street have so much to say. After scolding Lil’ Shanice for her raunchy talk, the rapstress talks to Aunt Dot over the phone. Again, Foxy Brown gets shots sent her way with Dot making the allusion: “See it’s sorta like what Tonya Harding did to Nancy.” They agree to resort to violently gruesome measures as payback to the frauds. Eventually on La Bella Mafia, Aunt Dot would turn lighthearted and family-friendly, co-signing her protégée Lil’ Shanice on “Shake Ya Bum Bum.”
Aunt Dot happens to reappear whenever Kim sniffs an imposter. Later in her mixtape work of the 2010s, she rightfully came after Nicki Minaj a few times on wax with that vitriol. 2011’s “Black Friday” massacred with “you Lil’ Kim clone clown / all this buffoonery, the shit stops now!” The diss track was the “SHEther” before “SHEther” became one of Minaj’s many nails in the coffin of floppery. On Hard Core 2K14, Aunt Dot returned on “Identity Theft,” which again reminded the public of who the original blueprint is.
La Bella Mafia sees Lil’ Kim in the role the album’s title suggests. The goons that she leads—and who, in return, stand strong by her side—received their fanbase name in “Hold It Now” and “The Beehive.” On this LP, the once Notorious K.I.M. is now the Queenpin of mafioso Brooklyn-styled rap and pushing kilo weights of cocaine. She links with Styles P of The Lox in “Get In Touch With Us,” gloating in the money, power, and respect they earned five years prior. There, she calls herself Ms. White.
In “Came Back For You,” she argues, “After me, there will be none, but you could call me Miss White.” The Notorious B.I.G. used to go by Frank White, the lead drug lord of the 1990 crime-drama Kings of New York. “This Is Who I Am” adds a sharper adroitness to her vocal delivery, as she calls herself the Queen of New York who could possibly be “elected Mayor of the 718.” Over time, Ms. White would develop into Kimmy “Griselda” Blanco, inspired by the black widow Colombian drug lord. In 2014, she released the menacing “Kimmy Blanco.”
Her last studio album, The Naked Truth, saw all these personalities morph into one, as well as early signs of some more. Notorious K.I.M. comes back in “Spell Check” where she spells out words in her verses in a flow similar to that album. “Whoa” finds her turning on Junior M.A.F.I.A., La Bella Mafia style, after her one-year sentence to prison, following a conspiracy crime and members reportedly snitching info that would eventually incriminate her. And on “Shut Up Bitch,” she refers to herself as “La Bella Don.”
The real star of The Naked Truth is Lil’ Kim a.k.a. The Cover Girl. Although her first lyrical mention is on The Notorious K.I.M.‘s “Custom Made (Give It To You),” the rapstress highlights the lifestyle throughout this particular album. We’ve witnessed this persona a few times in her music videos prior to Naked Truth: The rainbow spectrum of colorful minks and wigs in the fashion-forward “Crush on You” and her ritzy dancing in “No Matter What They Say.”
Because of her role as a fashion icon, it became easier for Kim to segue into pop music, with her feature on the “Lady Marmalade” remake with Christina Aguilera, Mya, and P!nk hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earning a Grammy. Foxy Brown would end up dissing this side of Kim in 2001’s “Oh Yeah”: “Bitches smile up in your face, turn around and pop shit / You a industry bitch, I’m in the streets, bitch.” That would be addressed on La Bella Mafia, but by 2005, Lil’ Kim had nothing to lose, especially since her consequences were the result of a shootout between both stars’ posses.
The Naked Truth finds Lil’ Kim being comfortable with tabloid fodder, knowing she’s the topic of discussion because of greatness. “Shut Up Bitch” holds a pompous weight, shading Star Jones’ Payless “bogo” shoes endorsement with laughs in Vogue, Prada, and Gucci. The “female Scarface” brags about sitting front row at fashion shows next to Marc Jacobs in “I Know You See Me.” She continues to spit, “In you favorite magazine they feature the Queen / On the covers of ‘Don Diva’ doing spreads with [‘America’s Next Top Model’ winner] Eva.” And of course when she “walk[s] down the street, dudes call [her] the covergirl.”
The tailend of her final studio album to date outlined other facets of her rap persona. “We Don’t Give A Fuck,” which features Bun B and Twista, has her rapping with a Southern flow embracing its brand of trap. Eventually that would set the wheels in motion for her Auto-Tuned mixtape cuts “Trendsetter” and “MIGO” from Hard Core 2K14, or 2017’s “Took Us A Break.”
Her narrative of a Playboy Bunny and Kimmy The Pornstar would continue with “Gimmie That” and “Kitty Box.” The rapstress always had this revolving image from her squat poses to literal skits including orgasmic moaning. In 2007, she hopped on the remix of Gucci Mane’s “Freaky Gurl,” by saying, “Welcome to Kimmy’s world.” Her featured part on Fat Joe’s “Pornstar” from 2009, as well as her one-off promotional single “Download,” all but solidified what the visual of “How Many Licks” promised: an edible and consumable Kim for the sexual desires of the masses. Hard Core 2K14 has an intro mentioning how men in prisons received their fulfillment just by looking at posters of the sex symbol, something she loves to mention in various songs.
Due to her roots in BedStuy, Kim has been influenced by the area’s native, immigrant West Indies culture. Although she’s never named this side of her, the Durty BedStuy Kim flirts with patois sometimes in her music. Long before Drake adopted the accent in his music, Kim had done so in “Lighters Up,” in 2005 referencing Damian Marley’s “Welcome To Jamrock.” Later on The Naked Truth, she’s get “Durty” with a reggae-tinged beat and foul language inspired by Millie Jackson. The song samples Tanya Stephen’s “Mi and Mi God,” where Kim sings the bridge in a similar fashion. On Hard Core 2K14, this persona is revisited on “Dead Gal Walking.”
At the end of the day, all these versatile personalities make up Kimberly Denise Jones. At the end of each of her studio albums, she has sobering tracks that remind us “I’m Human,” as finalized on The Notorious K.I.M. There’s still a sense of straightforward, matter-of-fact delivery in these particular cuts: “Hold On,” “This Is Who I Am,” and “Last Day” best exemplifying that essence. The characters were simply meant to be a tool for flexing diversity and, of course, for entertainment purposes but in the long run, they not only established Kim as a force in hip-hop, but also proved rap stars could manage diverging eras and evolutions masterfully.
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