Lil' Kim is still red-hot and raunchy, but for how long?

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

April 17, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN STAFF

I was a freshman in college when this spicy Brooklyn chick named Lil' Kim stormed onto the hip-hop horizon.

At every campus party that year -- 1996 -- folks packed the dance floor when the DJ threw on "No Time," her sassy, James Brown funk-flavored hit. Her flow was decidedly masculine, the lyrical content raw and pornographic. She punctuated the lazy groove with rhymes that were clever and funny, but too nasty to reprint in a family newspaper.

The promotional shots for her classic debut, Hard Core, featured the honey-toned Tabasco-tongued rapper squatting in a bikini and heels. Kim wore her sexuality like the sorority girls wore their pins and Greek letters.

Unlike some of her peers, she didn't seem contrived, as if some shrewd dude behind the scenes had concocted her street girl/glam girl/porn star image. Her eyes, her carriage seemed to say, "Yeah, you know you like this. I'm here, yo."

Kim excited some, scared others. When her debut dropped in November 1996, I rushed out and copped it. Six years later, and following her pedestrian 2000 sophomore CD, Notorious K.I.M. (which I also rushed out to buy), the woman born Kimberly Jones is still rhyming about cash, drugs, sex, Gucci and Prada in her signature, Biggie-influenced style.

On La Bella Mafia, her third album, Kim is more focused, more evolved this time -- if you can dig it. Lately, she's been so busy showing up at award shows with her enhanced parts on display that you forget she's a charismatic rapper. Among the tracks on La Bella Mafia glorifying schemin', druggin' and sexin' is "Heavenly Father," which delves into Kim's spiritual growth since the death of her famous former lover and mentor, Biggie Smalls, and homegirls Aaliyah and Left Eye of TLC.

Her persona (not to mention her nose and breasts) has been altered a bit. (She looks like a sepia Pamela Anderson these days.) The grit she displayed in '96 has been smoothed out. The beats still thump and throb, but they lack the consistency found on Hard Core.

Where Notorious K.I.M. lacked inspiration, La Bella Mafia is more charged. But the record, like most recent hip-hop albums, is spotty and runs too long. The lead single, the chugging Timbaland-produced "The Jump Off," and the Beastie Boys-sampled "Hold It Now" are the best tracks on the 16-cut album.

Kim proves throughout, though, that her skills on the mike are tight and legit.

Ultimately, La Bella Mafia, sparkling with a few gems, reveals an artist at a crossroads. How long can Kim play the gangsta sex kitten? Where will her career go after she becomes too old to sashay around in pasties and a smile?

And will those Essence-reading, career-driven, pseudo-Afrocentric, self-righteous sistas ever get off her back for extending the black woman-as-sexpot image?

I remember a conversation I had two years ago with author Pearl Cleage in which we pondered Kim's persona.

"We knew what to do with raunchy women like Bessie Smith and Millie Jackson," Cleage said. "They were blues women coming from a long tradition. Lil' Kim, on the other hand, we don't quite know what to do with her."

Maybe Kim, as shown on her uneven new album, doesn't quite know what to do with herself.

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