“This album I get to show my creativity, my versatility” – Lil’ Kim, 2000
After the death of The Notorious BIG in early 1997, the legacy he was building was left hanging in the balance. For the artists he was helping establish, especially Lil’ Kim, it became public question what was next. She was Biggie’s crown jewel. He helped shape her into the artist she had become, and without that creative force the question remained: Could she still deliver musically and command the attention of the masses? Kim would soon prove that to be a yes, by releasing her most incredible and versatile body of work to date.
During the three (nearly four) years that separated the releases of Hard Core and The Notorious K.I.M., Lil’ Kim kept herself busy building and expanding not only her musical footprint, but also her brand. She was seen on the big screen (She’s All That), the small screen (“DAG”), numerous magazine covers (Interview, The Source, OUT, i-D), billboards, brand advertisements (Candies’, MAC Viva Glam), and even fashion runways. A deal with Wilhelmina helped land her many of these modeling and fashion opportunities, and she also began collaborations with big-name photographers including the legendary David LaChapelle. The images he took of Kim serving ghetto-fabulous realness not only defined and cemented her as a fashion icon, but also inspired and now epitomize a generation. Most notable was the photo he took of Kim wearing nothing but painted-on Louis Vuitton logos. The photo was meant to be Kim’s album cover, but Interview Magazine editor-in-chief Ingrid Sischy saw the photo at a gallery exhibit and ordered LaChapelle to give it to her, becoming yet another magazine cover for Kim.
Despite all her external ventures, Kim still took time to focus on developing her sophomore LP. Puff Daddy took on the project as executive producer, and he and Kim soon got to work crafting tracks. In the midst of the creative process, Kim suffered what was seen at the time as one of the worst leaks in music. In the summer of 1999, somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen songs (sources differ on the actual number of songs in the initial leak, though around a dozen ended up surfacing at some point prior to the album’s release) found their way onto budding file-sharing websites. As a result, Kim pushed back the project and returned to the studio with Puff and other producers to craft more material.
On the leaked material that did not make the cut for the album, Kim and Puff were riding the wave of sample-based records that helped shape 90’s and 00’s hip hop, including Kim’s debut. Diana Ross (“Diamonds” with Kelly Price), the Eurythmics (“Nobody Do It Better (Than Us)” with Puff), Donna Summer (“Bad Girl” with RuPaul), and Sade (“Single Black Female”) were just a few of the artists either sampled or interpolated on the leaked songs. There was, however, one non-sampled track that has become regarded as one of her best: “The Queen“. Kim declares her superiority (and even drops a few bars in Russian) while Puff plays hype man over the song’s royal, choir and bell-filled instrumentation. It perfectly captured the entrance of a queen, and it was Kim’s choice to be the album’s lead single. Unfortunately, conflicts between her and Atlantic Records led “No Matter What They Say” to be chosen as the official lead in for the album.
Kim rallied against “No Matter What They Say” as a single choice because she felt that the Latin-feel that dominated the song was overdone at mainstream radio. The song found minor success but failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100’s top 50. The follow-up and final single release from the album, “How Many Licks” failed to pass number 75 on the same chart but has managed to become one of Kim’s best known hits. Videos for both singles were shot back-to-back, the former featured Kim surrounded by a who’s who of major names at the time such as Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott, Redman, Method Man, Carmen Electra, and of course Puff Daddy and Junior M.A.F.I.A. On the flip-side “How Many Licks” focuses almost solely on Kim, and features now-iconic images of Kim being turned into sex-dolls while a noticeably absent Sisqo wails the song’s chorus.
On June 27, 2000, The Notorious K.I.M. arrived, packed with 18 songs, an all start roster of producers and guests including Rockwilder, Mary J. Blige, Redman, Cee-Lo, and the legendary Grace Jones. The packaging was adorned with glamorous and glossy photos of Kim bringing life to the black barbie image, courtesy of David LaChapelle. The album skyrocketed to number four on the Billboard 200 immediately after its release, but found critics divided. Some praised Kim’s continued sexuality and strange sense of vulnerability, while others criticized the album for being overdone and camp.
While sexuality is once again a prominent topic (as it was on her debut), and is important to the overall body of work, it is equally if not more important to recognize and appreciate Kim’s expanded musical directions. She sounds hungry, and vocally delivers her verses more confident and determined than ever. Her deep cadence still leaves a chilling aftertaste with each listen. This album was also an opportunity for Kim to showcase her incredible abilities as a lyrical storyteller, and to prove that despite the endless rumors, she could actually write her own rhymes without Big in the picture.
From the opening track’s courtroom fiasco featuring Cee-Lo as Kim’s attorney and Redman as the judge, to the unparalleled intricacies (and even premonitions) of “Aunt Dot,” Kim displayed a still-underrated ability to vividly paint a picture with her words. On “Revolution,” which features the iconic Grace Jones on hook duty and the ubiquitous Puff playing hype man, Kim and Lil’ Cease detail a retaliation against an enemy, from the preparations to the journey all the way to the final moments of the confrontation. It’s impossible to not visualize every moment of the scenario. Even playing the scorned woman on “Don’t Mess With Me,” she effortlessly paints a visual of her unfaithful man (who bears some resemblance to The Notorious BIG) over a perfectly placed sample of Pat Benetar’s “Heartbreaker,” produced by a budding Kanye West.
Kim joined other female trailblazers in Hip-Hop such as Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, and Queen Latifah, by incorporating her own singing voice in a number of the songs on The Notorious K.I.M.. While she wouldn’t sing a song start to finish until “The Warning” on 2003’s La Bella Mafia, she came close with “Right Now,” which is melodically built around Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” Kim may not have the vocal power of a Lauryn Hill, but she has no trouble carrying a tune with her smooth singing voice, and requires no vocal effects to shine.
Sexuality, girl power and superiority were important factors to keep in the mix, as they helped position Kim to where she stood as she released this body of work. On the album’s street single “Suck My Dick” she takes her feminism to the next level and flips the script on misogynistic men who mistreat and objectify women, by overly objectifying and demeaning them. The song is quintessential, sexual Kim, but pales in comparison to the the moan-filled “Custom Made (Give It To You).” She aims at rivals including Foxy Brown and Shyne on “Notorious K.I.M.,” which addresses those aforementioned rumors that The Notorious B.I.G. wrote her lyrics on “Single Black Female” (“my nigga gone now, so who writing my rhymes?”), and where she directs her pen towards her critics and detractors on the brash closer “I’m Human.”
Despite his death, Kim kept BIG close on this album, giving him credit as an executive producer, and sampling him on a number of songs. The impact of his loss is prominently displayed on the incredible and emotional collaboration with Mary J. Blige, “Hold On.” The song is her tribute to him, and throughout it a nearly-crying Kim reflects memories of the two together, the pain of his loss, and also reveals that she was once pregnant with his child. It’s a poignant reminder that underneath all the costumes and sex-fueled lyrics, Kim is a real, feeling person.
In the immediate aftermath of the album’s release, Kim’s star continued to shine bright. The album went on to receive platinum status in the United States, and sold millions more worldwide. A 2001 remake of “Lady Marmalade” with Christina Aguilera, P!nk, and Mya earned Kim both her first number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and her first Grammy Award. Though her next album wouldn’t arrive until 2003, Kim kept herself in the public eye through continued musical guest appearances and other expanded branding moves. She would soon disengage from Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Puff Daddy, and down the road find herself imprisoned for perjury, while becoming the first (and to date, only) female rapper to be awarded the elusive 5-mic rating from The Source magazine. No matter what they say, Kim remains a trailblazer, icon, and influencer in hip hop music and pop culture.
“A queen is not a queen because she has failed. But a queen is a queen, because failure has not stopped her”- Lil’ Kim, “I’m Human.”