To be lauded as a legend is one thing, but what good are kudos if you can’t even drive freely down the road you paved? As much as we revere Lil’ Kim —and as much success as she’s enjoyed— those who came after her are the ones who truly benefited from the fruits of her labor. If you’re having doubts, just look at Nicki Minaj’s massive crossover appeal. But Lil’ Kim was also ahead of her time musically, and one album stands above all others.
When The Notorious K.I.M. was first released, there were certain songs that I loved. And I still love them, starting with “Suck My Dick,” which still feels like the perfect response to the street harassment many women contend with from idiotic men. There’s also the title track, which snatches Foxy Brown bald within the first minute. There are others, but many of the tracks were not that fierce – exactly why I didn’t completely get the album as a whole. It was not nearly as gritty as her debut, Hardcore, or her work with Junior M.A.F.I.A.
Such was Kim’s intent.
After the success of her first album, it was clear that Kim had a bigger budget to work with and a larger vision for herself. That resulted in bigger wigs, more expensive looking videos, and far more polish. The Notorious K.I.M. fell victim to several leaks –even more surprising given it was the very late 1990s– which resulted in the album’s release date being pushed back several times. This was partially to combat the bootlegged tracks that found their way to mixtapes, fan Web sites, and the radio— but also to deal with the mounting criticism over a more commercial sound.
In April 2000, Entertainment Weekly wrote about the delays facing The Notorious K.I.M. and quoted one “well-known hip-hop publicist” complaining about the dozen tracks that had already leaked, saying, “It’s very pop and doesn’t have a street edge. People are going to think, ‘Who are you trying to be, Lil’ Kim or Mandy Moore?”’ Now, name that female rapper who has had to deal with similar complains in this decade (*cough* Nicki *cough*). Then compare the success of her pop tracks with the pop offerings Kim dropped 15 years ago.
Some of these tracks – including her cover of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” with RuPaul – did not make the final cut. And part of Lil’ Kim’s additional recording did add more of a “street edge” to the final product. Still, Kim’s sophomore effort remained a glossier and far more commercial affair. Some of it was done quite cleverly, a la “How Many Licks” featuring Sisqó, which samples the theme from the TV series Knight Rider. Others, like the Pat Benatar-sampling “Don’t Mess With Me” and the album’s lead single, “No Matter What They Say,” were more overt.
None of these songs were huge successes on radio (though many look back on “How Many Licks” and its Neptunes-produced remix with great reverence), but they all fit quite nicely into where radio is now. A year after The Notorious K.I.M. was released, Lil’ Kim was included in the remake of the LaBelle classic “Lady Marmalade” alongside Christina Aguilera, Pink, and Mýa. That made Kim the first female rapper to yield a number one single on the Hot 100 – giving her album a nice lil’ bump in the process.
It also made it quite easy for other female rappers to follow her lead. Looking back, the heat Kim took for “going pop” made it far easier for Eve to record with Gwen Stefani, Nicki Minaj (whom I adore) to do poppier records and sing (despite our urging that she not). And let’s hope Iggy Azalea wrote Kim a thank you note.
The Notorious K.I.M. was not a full-fledged pop-rap affair in the wake of leaks and criticism, but it was certainly aiming to be broader in sound and appeal than Hardcore. I may prefer the latter album, but 15 years later I have a better appreciation for the former’s intentions. There’s a lot about Kim in 2015 that makes people wince. These reasons are understandable, but it should be noted that as influential as Kim has been throughout her pioneering career, she’s never gotten as many kudos as she deserved.
She is a trailblazer for numerous reasons, but what she did with her second album warrants more attention. The woman had phenomenal vision and we continue to see much of it through those who came long after her. They’re very welcome.