Truth be told, "Lil" Kimberly Jones once played a very large role in the hip hop story, mostly because of her associations, but at least a little bit because of her tenacity and drive to be the best female rapper out there.
She didn't quite reach that goal, obviously, but at one time, it was believed that she was pretty close. If you don't buy into that theory, the rest of this write-up isn't for you, but if you reluctantly agree, keep going, because I'm certain there's going to be at least one thing I make fun of during this write-up.
The Notorious K.I.M. is Kimberly's second solo album, coming four years after her double-platinum debut Hard Core, which was popular because that's how music worked back in 1996. Although still signed to the Undeas / Big Beat / Atlantic Records banner, The Notorious K.I.M. features Bad Boy CEO and figurehead Sean "Puffy" Combs playing a much larger role, because he was known to throw all of his support behind any act out there that maintained any sort of relationship with his late breadwinner, The Notorious B.I.G., in an effort to prove that he was still cool.
Obviously, the title of the album is inspired by Kim's late boyfriend, whom she never really got over even after he ditched her to marry his labelmate Faith Evans. Unsurprisingly, Faith doesn't acknowledge the project, and neither does Biggie's own mother, who clearly wants to keep her daughter-in-law happy so that she can keep seeing her grandkids on a regular basis. But Puff Daddy had no such qualms about selling out his friend, so he played along with Kimberly's insistence to the press that the title was not only "a memorial" to her fuck buddy, it also played to her strengths, those of being "notorious". Yeah, I know, I think that sounds stupid, too.
Without Biggie around to ghostwrite her lyrics in an awkward fashion, Kim was forced to purchase her own pen and pad, and because you're heavily influenced by what you have around you, she mostly comes across as a female Biggie on The Notorious K.I.M. Kim is too smart to be quickly classified as a one-hit wonder, though, so she uses this project to branch out into different sounds, recruiting producers such as Rockwilder, some of Puffy's Hitmen, and, of all people, Kanye West to contribute the musical backing for her three-verse manifestos, while keeping the guest list behind the mic relatively small (except for when it comes to singing hooks: there are a bunch of people that do that for her).
I've never actually listened to this album before, so I always assumed that The Notorious K.I.M. was always conceived to be the way it appears. Of course, this is hip hop, and one shouldn't assume a goddamn thing: in the summer of 1999, twelve tracks from the album apparently leaked to the Interweb (because rap fans are an impatient lot), so Kimberly put a hold on the project until she recorded eleven all-new tracks for the official release. I should be wondering what her original vision looked like, but I just realized that I don't really give a shit: you get graded on what you dropped, not what you wanted to drop.
1. LIL' DRUMMER BOY (FEAT. CEE-LO GREEN & REDMAN)
What the fuck did I just listen to? This was an embarrassment for everyone involved: hell, the fucking guest list doesn't even make sense. Cee-Lo and Redman? What? Neither man was hurting for work at the time, so what gives? Also, neither man sounds any good on “Lil' Drummer Boy”. However, Lil' Kimberly is the one who gets to hold her head in shame: with The Notorious B.I.G. out of the picture, she resorts to basically copying the concept of Biggie, and her rhymes are the worse for it. The Mario Winans and Puff Daddy beat even apes Biggie's “I Got A Story To Tell”, except Kim's tale isn't compelling, engaging, or even coherent. Oh man, this does not bode well.
2. CUSTOM MADE (GIVE IT TO YOU)
Oh dear Lord is this awful. Where to start? Well, the first thing you hear is a slowed-down sample lifted from the Lil Louis's “French Kiss”, with a ridiculously unsexy female orgasm running on a loop even after the rhymes kick in. Once Kim starts rapping, you're almost grateful, because your ears can finally focus on something else, but once she gets to her second bar, you just get upset again, as you're left wondering why hip hop ever put up with her bullshit in the first place. Then she rips off some bars from her mentor-slash-fuck buddy Biggie's “Gimme The Loot” for the hook, and you're just done with this shit. Fuck this song. Well, not literally, as the robotic moaning isn't something you'll want to hear more of, but still.
3. WHO'S NUMBER ONE? (FEAT. PUFF DADDY)
Producer Younglord mines the same source material that Mr. Cheeks would use later on 2002's “Lights, Camera, Action”, but pitches it much slower, which makes “Who's Number One?” sound like the saddest party joint ever. Kim's lyrics aren't getting any better, but at least she's settled on her new persona: an aggressive, take-no-shit type who also likes talking about sex. And on that end, she's at least consistent. The speed of this instrumental has the adverse effect of making Kim sound like she's less than confident in her own abilities, overthinking her bars in order to fit the music properly. At least I think that's an adverse effect: for all I know, Younglord did that shit on purpose. Which would be kind of funny.
4. SUCK MY DICK (FEAT. MR. BRISTAL)
There's an interesting idea buried inside “Suck My Dick”: Kim helpfully explains that she's going to treat guys with the same level of disrespect as male rappers do to the chicks, which, naturally, leads into her titular demand. However, the message is diluted with the horrible hook, where the word “bitch” is spoken with such utter hatred that it's difficult to listen to, as are all of Kim's bars dedicated to getting her pussy eaten. Which, again, dudes rap about being on the receiving end of fellatio all the goddamn time, so kudos to Kimberly for trying to fight for gender equality, albeit in an ineffective forum such as this. Well, at least Rated R's beat sounded decent, and Kim seems like she actually tried with her lines this time.
5. SINGLE BLACK FEMALE (FEAT. MARIO “YELLOWMAN” WINANS)
I kind of want to strangle this song because of guest star Mario Winans's wholesale rape of Sade's “The Sweetest Taboo” during his hook. Lil' Kimberly stays making questionable decisions, such as her insistence that she's been writing her own rhymes the entire time and not just out of necessity because her ghostwriter is deceased. But otherwise, “Single Black Female”, whose title underscores the fact that Kim was ultimately alone during the recording of The Notorious K.I.M. (and you thought it was merely a reference to the movie Single White Female), sounds like one of the Notorious one's songs from the Life After Death era. Not terrible, but still objectionable (by me, anyway, as “The Sweetest Taboo” really should never be fucked with anyway).
6. REVOLUTION (FEAT. GRACE JONES, LIL' CEASE, & PUFF DADDY)
Horribly miscast (Puff Daddy as a thug? Lil' Cease as anything?), but still enjoyable, thanks to Kim's role as the narrator-slash-lead. Kimberly sticks to the matter at hand, delivering an expert storytelling rap detailing a revenge plot in a way that would make her mentor proud, all over a Puffy instrumental that holds the listener's attention. Puffy contributes ad-libs only, but you can still see his fingerprints all over “Revolution”; this isn't entirely a bad thing, as Bad Boy records has plenty of solid hip hop tracks under its belt. Kim's continued allegiance to what remained of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. results in Cease cashing a paycheck for a terrible contribution that sounds entirely out of place, goofy while Kim was trying to be serious. Save for him, this actually isn't bad.
7. HOW MANY LICKS (FEAT. SISQO)
This is the only single I remember from The Notorious K.I.M., and I don't believe it was all that successful, Neptunes-assisted remix aside. I'm sure that basing your hook on an old commercial for Tootsie Pops is never a good idea, a fact that guest star Sisqo, fresh off of "The Thong Song" and zero other solo hits, discovers far too late, and the Mario Winans / Puffy beat sounds just as generic as the rest of Rockwilder's shit. Kimberly uses the track to talk about, unsurprisingly, sex, prompting listeners to imagine her spread in XXL (you two who were experiencing puberty in the late 1990s probably remember which pictorial I'm talking about) and masturbate in the middle of the track, even interrupting the flow with a fake orgasm as a placeholder for you. Little wonder why many hip hop heads consider Lil' Kim to be a one-trick pony, but at least she embraced the, um, trick, I guess? Bleh.
8. NOTORIOUS K.I.M.
Since The Notorious B.I.G. had already passed before Kimberly started recording this project, the only way he was ever going to make an appearance, barring our host locating a lost verse in the drawer next to her birth control pills, was through the use of a vocal sample. Which is exactly what producer Rockwilder (oh hey, didn't see you there, this is, um, awkward) does on here, stealing some bars (and ad-libs) from Biggie's “Goin' Back To Cali”. Yes, the instrumental hardly comes across as anything Biggie would have ever wanted to actually rhyme over, but does that mean Kim sounds bad over it? It sure as hell does! This title track would be damn near useless had it not been for our host's sly potshot at Puffy's hired gun-slash-Biggie soundalike Shyne during the second verse. That was interesting, anyway.
9. NO MATTER WHAT THEY SAY
Okay, I lied: I remember this track being a single, too. And I still have no idea why anyone thought that to be a good idea: her fake Jamaican accent fills the hook with more words than what actually fits, making this sound like a motherfucking hot mess that is offensive to fans of both reggae and just plain music. This was all sorts of terrible. The beat switches about halfway through from a fake Caribbean feel to something more appropriate, even with Kim adopting an old-school flow, but then switches back before you ever get the chance to really enjoy it.
10. SHE DON'T LOVE YOU
Shaft's instrumental is much harder than one would expect, so it's a shame that Kimberly uses it to espouse on how much more fun you would have if you were fucking her instead of your own girlfriend. Look, I know Kim's work, so this line of unabashed sexual freedom and enjoyment is par for the course, but the fact that she just spent three entire verses all basically relaying the exact same message doesn't work in her favor. If you're hot, you're hot: no need to broadcast that shit all day everyday. People will notice. I realize that advice doesn't really apply to hip hop, where currency is measured in boasts and shit-talking, but still.
11. QUEEN BITCH PT. 2 (FEAT. PUFF DADDY)
This sequel to Hard Core's “Queen Bitch” (duh) uses Puff Daddy to shift some of the responsibility off of our host, and honestly, it isn't bad. Kim switches her focus back to talking trash and does a credible-enough job at it, while Puffy is Puffy. Nasheim Myrick's instrumental isn't as dramatic as his work was on the original song, and the Biggie vocal samples (taken from “What's Beef?” and the original “Queen Bitch”, possibly the reference track he recorded for Kimberly if you want to make light of everything) that make up the hook loses its power when you realize that it's just a chorus (albeit one with a distinct callback to this track's predecessor), but at this point, I'll take what I can get.
12. DON'T MESS WITH ME
This Pat Benatar-sampling song was co-produced by Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie and produced by the one and only Kanye West, which means that 'Ye did all the work while the artist also known as Tha Madd Rapper took additional credit even though he barely showed up in the studio, probably. In this case, that works out in Yeezy's favor: the beat sucks, relying too heavily on the sample and leaving the drums as an afterthought. Kimberly's “Me & My Bitch”-aping tale also seems amateurish at best, as though she suddenly forgot how to rap or something. The overlong skit at the end was also unnecessary. A failure all around. You may be tempted to track it down if you're a Kanye West completist, but I urge you, don't.
13. DO WHAT YOU LIKE (FEAT. JUNIOR M.A.F.I.A.)
Kim reunites with her Junior M.A.F.I.A. brethren, who have significantly diminished in number: only Lil' Cease, Banger, and Bristal make appearances on this posse cut. And weirdly, Kim's contribution is still the weakest, as she tries to hard to sound, well, hard, which doesn't work when she's rhyming alongside other guys who are also trying too hard. Shaft's instrumental may have been interesting had it been gifted to another party, but nobody on here is deserving of it. And the fact that this shit completely falls apart after Kim's final verse certainly doesn't aid matters any.
14. OFF THE WALL (FEAT. LIL CEASE & PUFF DADDY)
It's not shocking when Puffy's ad-libs pop up near the beginning, as his beat (co-handled with Mario Winans) proficiently imitates the 1980s sampling that carried him into a higher tax bracket. Said beat, which swipes from The Art of Noise's “Beat Box”, actually isn't that bad, but I like cheesy 1980s music, so maybe I'm supposed to be the target audience. I'm doing a lot better than Kim and guest star Lil' Cease, anyway: neither rapper sounds fully comfortable on here. It's far too late for me to start questioning Kim's artistic choices on The Notorious K.I.M., but maybe I should do it anyway.
15. RIGHT NOW (FEAT. CARL THOMAS)
Throwing crooner Carl Thomas onto “Right Now” adds to the idea that Lil' Kim and Puff Daddy were actively trying to recreate the Biggie spark, as he was capable of being all things to all audiences (with varying degrees of success, mind you). This shit is downright horrible, though, and not just because Kimberly spends the first two verses singing to the tune of Suzanne Vega's “Tom's Diner”. There just wasn't anything appealing about this shit: both participants even manage to sound more bored than the anticipated audience. The fuck was this shit?
16. AUNT DOT (FEAT. LIL' SHANIECE)
17. HOLD ON (FEAT. MARY J. BLIGE)
Kim goes the serious route, turning “Hold On” into a one-sided conversation with the late Christopher Wallace (surprising, I know). Our host reveals enough personal moments (including how she and Faith Evans, Biggie's widow, won't be Facebook friends anytime soon) to qualify this as a moment of clarity, as though she has to get these thoughts out before they drove her crazy. I appreciate both the sentiment and the fact that she doesn't turn on a dime to start talking shit again. Guest star Mary J. Blige also sings directly to Biggie in a genuine manner. In terms of tribute songs, Puffy's “I'll Be Missing You” is better (hell, The Lox's “We'll Always Love Big Poppa”, which isn't very good as a track, holds up more than “Hold On”), but this still felt real enough.
18. I'M HUMAN (FEAT. CARL THOMAS)
And then she ends with this shit. Why, God, why?
THE LAST WORD: Well, The Notorious K.I.M. is no Hard Core, but that's not a bad thing. Not that this album is great or even good, mind you. Far from it: Lil Kim spins her wheels and proves herself to be a one-trick pony for the majority of the project, only managing to impress when she drops the facade and rhymes from the heart, such as when she's talking about how much she misses her boyfriend. And it's possibly because of her loss that she doesn't convince anyone on the more boastful tracks on here: her mind was obviously elsewhere, even with Puffy guiding her to record store shelves. What's weird about this project is that, for the most part, the beats aren't bad: Kimberly's ear for instrumentals has a pretty decent batting average. Hell, give these instrumentals to another artist and this might have been categorized as "good". Still, this is a Lil Kim album review, and even though I do not recommend anyone actually purchase this shit (you can burn it if you absolutely must), nobody is reading this far down anyway, so I'll just end with akfhqwf ksuiwnh Ghhulluw wo iqhndw owdjk. KJduw?
Lil Kim - Hard Core
Lil Kim - Hard Core