Notorious for her flesh-baring image and sexually explicit lyrics, Lil' Kim shot to fame in the latter half of the 1990s. But behind her spike-heeled “gangsta porno rap” ferocity lay a conflicted, vulnerable side of her character. She came from a broken home, and as a teenager had endured a violent relationship with her father. As a result she ran away and fell into an outwardly glamorous, but dangerous and exploitative world of pimps and drug dealers. She was discovered by Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G., who turned her into a star and became her lover before he was murdered in 1997 — a crime that has never been solved.
Kim was devastated by Wallace’s death, but eventually continued to forge a successful career. She is one of only three female rappers to have three platinum albums — the others being Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj. And she is also the only female rapper to ever receive a coveted “5-mics” review from The Source magazine, for her acclaimed 2005 album The Naked Truth — released while she was serving a jail sentence for perjury. Since regaining her freedom, Kim has continued to be active musically — and also as a reality-TV star — and in June 2014 became a mother to a daughter, Royal Reign, whose father is the Honduras-born rapper Mr. Papers. The couple are no longer together.
Lil' Kim was born Kimberly Denise Jones on July 11, 1974 (some sources say 1975), in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. Her parents, Ruby Mae Jones and Linwood Jones, both hailed from Trinidad. She has an older brother, Christopher. As a child, Kim was sent to a well-regarded Catholic school — Queen of All Saints in Brooklyn — in an attempt to provide a stable learning environment. But stability was in short supply after her parents’ marriage crumbled when Kim was eight years old. Linwood, a former military man, had reportedly become physically abusive towards his wife — Kim told the Washington Post in 2000 that she remembered her mom having black eyes, and that “my father told people she had fallen.” (Linwood has never responded publicly to Kim’s allegations.)
Kim moved with her mother and brother to suburban New Rochelle, NY, where some of the girls in their new, all-white neighborhood teased Kim about her skin color. But Ruby Mae struggled for money and, unable to support her family, eventually granted Linwood custody of their two children. Linwood remarried, though his relationship with Kim soured irreparably only after she began dating boys at the age of 13. According to Kim he became increasingly verbally abusive and their relationship took a violent turn — Kim once stabbed him with a pair of scissors. Kim left home at 14. In the years that followed, she sometimes stayed with neighbors, or with older men who housed and fed her — in return for sex. She had jobs working in department stores (following in the footsteps of her mom, who worked at Macy’s), and ran errands for drug dealers. She has said that she did “whatever it took” to make ends meet during this period. She has also hinted that she was sexually abused, though she has never named her abuser.
Kim attended the Sarah J. Hale Vocational High School in Brooklyn, and later the Brooklyn College Academy — her future rival Foxy Brown was also a pupil, although Brown is a few years younger. By the time Kim met Christopher Wallace at the age of 17, she had dropped out of education completely. Wallace was a couple of years older at 19, a small-time drug dealer on the path to hip-hop superstardom as the Notorious B.I.G. They met by chance on a street corner, and after Kim did an impromptu rap for Wallace “he was sold,” Kim told Newsweek in 2000.
Wallace signed to Sean “Puffy” Combs’s label, Bad Boy Entertainment in 1992. As well as his solo career, Wallace also put together a hip-hop group, Junior MAFIA (an acronym for Masters at Finding Intelligent Attitudes), whose membership included several of his childhood friends. Lil' Kim — so called because of her diminutive 4-foot- 11-inch stature — became its only female member.
With Wallace at the helm, Junior M.A.F.I.A. released a series of singles and, in 1995, a debut album, Conspiracy. With the single "Player's Anthem," Lil' Kim was introduced to the world. She modeled her vocal flow on that of the Notorious B.I.G. — with added grunts and ferocity — while her image revolved around her sex appeal. It was Wallace’s idea for Kimberly Jones to create the Lil' Kim alter ego — and he encouraged her to cultivate a lascivious style that would be dubbed “gangsta porno rap.”
“When my son was here,” Christopher Wallace’s mother, Voletta, told the Washington Post in 2000, “that’s all you would hear: Kim and Christopher [saying], ‘Sex sells, sex sells.’”
Lil' Kim released her debut solo album, Hard Core, in November 1996 on Undeas Records, a subsidiary label of Big Beat, itself a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. With Wallace as executive producer — he also rapped on four of the songs — Hard Core showcased more of the raunchy and lyrical wordplay that the public had already heard on Conspiracy. Critics loved Kim’s raw, unapologetic flow, which was way more explicit than that of established female rappers like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah. The album debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and was certified double-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
By now Kim’s image was causing as much of a stir as her fearlessly promiscuous music. She had changed her appearance dramatically — with breast implants, blonde wigs and blue-eyed contact lenses. Vogue’s editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley called her the Black Madonna. But on closer inspection her modified appearance seemed an attempt to subvert deep-seated feelings of inadequacy: it had been blonde, blue-eyed girls who had ridiculed Kim when she was a child. Even after she found success, the wounds seemed not to have entirely healed. It begged the question: is Lil' Kim a feminist icon, or a victim, or perhaps even both?
“Think about it,” she told the writer Kristal Brent Zook. “The girls that [men] dated when I was younger were light-skinned and tall. I’m short and brown-skinned. I’ve always wondered… how do I fit in? I think being Lil' Kim the rapper helped me deal with it better. I think doing photo shoots and seeing all the people respond to me has helped. [But] I still don’t see what they see.”
Around the same time as Kim's debut, the public was introduced to another provocative female rapper by the name of Foxy Brown, whose debut album, Ill Na Na, was released a week after Hard Core. The pair had previously been friends, but the clash of the release dates, and their strikingly similar lingerie-clad album covers, sparked a rivalry that would descend into a bitter feud.
Christopher Wallace discovered Kim and developed her as an artist —they became lovers too, though their relationship was far from exclusive: Wallace famously slept around. They continued to sleep together during Wallace’s marriage to the R&B singer Faith Evans.
On March 9, 1997, Wallace was shot and killed in Los Angeles; Kim was preparing for a show in New York City at the time. His death hit her hard: she believed he was the only man who had ever loved her for who she was. She struggled to move on, revealing to Newsweek three years after Wallace’s death that she still kept some of his ashes in an urn at her home in New Jersey. “You’d think it would get easier with time,” she said. “But it doesn’t.”
Kim’s next album, The Notorious K.I.M., wasn’t released until 2000 — nearly four years after her debut. She worked with Puff Daddy on the album after collaborating with him during her hiatus in an attempt to stay connected to Biggie’s legacy. Guests included Grace Jones, Redman, Cee-Lo Green and Mary J. Blige. The album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart, was certified platinum and generally well received by audiences and critics alike.
Lil' Kim’s celebrity status skyrocketed with her next project. In March 2001, she joined forces with singers Christina Aguilera, Pink and Mya — with Missy Elliott and Rockwilder producing — to remake Patti Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. Despite never being officially released as a single, it held the No. 1 slot on the Billboard 100 chart for five weeks. The following year it won a Grammy award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals — firmly establishing Kim as one of the most sought-after rappers of the early 21st century.
Debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart in March 2003, Lil' Kim’s third album, La Bella Mafia, featured collaborations with Missy Elliott and 50 Cent — with Timbaland and Kanye West among the producers. Like its two predecessors, the album was also certified platinum. At the time Missy Elliott was the only other female MC with three platinum albums.
On February 26, 2001, gunshots were fired outside the Hot 97 studio in Manhattan, after Lil' Kim had been interviewed on the radio station. One man was shot and critically wounded. According to reports the shots were fired after an altercation between Kim’s entourage and a group associated with her rival, Foxy Brown. When the case came to trial, Kim told a grand jury that she had no knowledge that two of her entourage — her manager, Damion Butler, and another man, Suif Jackson — had been present at the time of the shooting. But the radio station’s security photos showed Butler opening a door for Kim, and witnesses linked her to both men — who pleaded guilty to gun charges — on the night in question. As a result, Kim was eventually convicted of perjury and conspiracy for lying to a federal grand jury in March 2005. “At the time, I thought [lying] was the right thing to do, but now I know it was wrong,” a tearful Kim said before sentencing. On July 6, 2005, she was fined $50,000 and sentenced to a year and a day in jail.
Lil' Kim’s fourth album, The Naked Truth, was released in September 2005, while she was still incarcerated. Though it debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200, it dropped out of the chart after just eight weeks. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that Kim was unable to promote the album from behind bars; nevertheless it went down well with the critics. The Source magazine gave it a “5-mic” review — Kim remains the only female MC ever to have received one. Some fans called The Naked Truththe greatest album of all time by a female rapper.
After serving her 366-day sentence, Lil' Kim was released from prison and initially struggled to get her career back on track. In 2008, she left Atlantic Records with the intention of releasing her own music independently. The same year, she dropped the mixtape Ms. G.O.A.T. – Greatest of All Time, which was critically well received but failed to garner much public attention. Kim also branched out into reality television, acting as a judge on the series Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious (2008) and competing in Dancing with the Stars (2009) — where she was a popular contestant. There were audible boos from the audience when she was eliminated in fifth place. She released her second mixtape, Black Friday, in 2011, its title a nod to her feud with the rapper Nicki Minaj, who had in 2010 released the album Pink Friday. She has since put out two more mixtapes — Hard Core 2K14 (2014) and Lil' Kim Season (2016). A new studio album is expected to drop in 2017.
Not all hip-hop beefs last forever — even the most deeply personal ones. In recent years Lil' Kim has reconciled with her former love rival Faith Evans — they had been at loggerheads for many years after the Notorious B.I.G.’s death. However, they toured together in 2016, and the following year collaborated on a track, "Lovin’ You for Life," on the posthumous album, The King & I, that Evans has put together using previously unheard Notorious B.I.G. recordings. “At the end of the day we are family, whether we like it or not,” Kim told The Source in May 2016. “I think we are really sisters in a certain sense. I’m a part of [Wallace’s] estate, she’s a part of the estate. We’re a part of Big, and we both share a lot in common… We realized how strong we could be together.”0 0