After 14 years and numerous false starts, Lil’ Kim finally returns to music to release her fifth studio album 9. In the time since 2005’s The Naked Truth she’s released four mixtapes, served a prison sentence, become a mother, joined several reality shows (as a judge, a contestant, a producer/star), been embroiled in beefs, portrayed on the big screen, and honored for her game-changing contributions to music and fashion. That begs the question: What does Lil’ Kim do now, musically? Adapt and transcend, as she always has.
For someone unlike this superfan listening to 9 for the first time, the Lil’ Kim that charges through the speakers may be a jarring experience at first. That’s because on 9, Kim spends most of her time delivering her razor-sharp bars through the scope of her singing voice and vocal effects. It’s not Hard Core-Kim at first listen, but lyrically, it’s more Lil’ Kim than ever.
The 9-track album’s standout cut, “Bag” best showcases Kim’s ability to embrace contemporary sounds while lyrically maintaining her superiority. Kim reminds listeners that, like on one of her 1995 breakout hits with Junior M.A.F.I.A., “Get Money,” “fuck n*ggas get money still that’s the protocol” and further reassures “yes sir, I’m still Hard Core numero uno.” Over the dark, brooding, and hard-hitting beat, she delivers sharp bars like “cut you with the same knife you put in my back,” “what the fuck is 20 g’s? I get more than that to sip Rose in VIP” and “I keep the bag on me like Santa Claus, he feelin’ on my titties like Diana Ross.” Yes, she pulled out a Diana Ross titty-grab reference directly after comparing herself to Santa Claus.
The menacing, guitar-driven “You Are Not Alone” is another hard hitting beat, but on this one, Kim unleashes something of a surprise. She sing-raps her way through, testifying that “the Henny got me feeling like Jill Scott on the microphone,” until she flips a switch and goes full-blown Biggie. As soon as she utters “I dismantle” during the second verse, her cadence immediately mimics Biggie’s. It’s a stark reminder that Kim is THE protegee of The Notorious B.I.G. and one of the only ones who can imitate him with such staggering accuracy.
Elsewhere on 9, Kim gets more contemporary, linking with City Girls and O.T. Genasis for the “Ms. New Booty” sampling “Found You,” Rich The Kid on “Catch My Wave,” and Musiq Soulchild and Rick Ross on the progressive, powerful opener “Pray For Me.” The song starts off somber and reflective, but builds. Kim’s lyrics evolve from the concerned “I ain’t worried bout a bitch taking you from me… I’m more worried ‘bout police taking you from me” to the quintessential Kim of “I whack a n*gga then buy a flight to Madrid” and “may the Bishop pray for you cause you know I got the Juice.”
Her take on Lil’ Durk’s “No Auto Durk” is two minutes of straight spitting with no auto-tune, a singular moment on 9. “Auto Blanco” is a shot from the lips of a pissed off Lil’ Kim. Flipping numerous bars from Durk’s original, Kim warns “why these bitches think they safe because I’m not out? You know any given time Kimmy could pop out” before leveling the perceived power of social media “Instagram got these hoes thinking that they got clout,” while still keeping it G “Big and Pac be alive if you n*ggas ain’t back shit up. If I know who did it I’d personally wrap they caskets up.” It’s bars like these that satisfy the lyrical Lil’ Kim purists.
What undercuts Kim though, are those same vocal effects that separate her from her peers and align her with today’s crop. It’s not their use that undermine Kim, but rather, their application. Kim’s vocals are poorly produced in a number of spots. Mixes are off (“Pray For Me,” “Jet Fuel”), overlays and pieced together verses are sloppy (“Found You,” “Go Awff,” “You Are Not Alone”). It’s a stain on her record to hear such amateur work applied to such a legend.
It takes a few listens, and production misses aside, Kim shines on 9. Her new style may not whet all palates, but only Lil’ Kim could reemerge sounding so different while still maintaining her core essence. On the album’s closing cut, “Jet Fuel,” Kim makes it clear she’s not going anywhere opening with, “Thinkin’ that I fell off? You got me fucked up.” With a part 2 of 9 expected in early 2020, Lil’ Kim perseveres, nearly 25 years after bursting onto the scene.