By Steve Weinstein
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Niatia Kirkland, the Brooklyn-based rapper who goes by the name Lil Mama, is 17 years old. Before she was born, Young MC and Tone Loc had already worn out their respective moments in the limelight. Before she learned to walk or talk, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer had already flared up and faded out. Rap music has been pop music, then, for Kirkland's entire life. And pop music can be a serious thing.
In January 2007, Kirkland signed a contract with Jive Records; she's now labelmates with Justin Timberlake and R. Kelly. She came to the label's attention because of "Lip Gloss," a song about how much Kirkland likes her lip gloss. Rap doesn't get a whole lot more pop than thisthe track sounds something like a double Dutch chant extended to two and a half minutes, and its lyrical concerns don't resonate anywhere beyond high school hallways: "My lip gloss is cool/My lip gloss be poppin'/I'm standing at my locker/And all the boys keep stoppin'." Kirkland's delivery has a nuclear-level sass, and the endlessly repetitive chorus is almost hypnotic in its stark simplicity. With its insidiously catchy hooks, the track seems custom-engineered to hang around in your head long after the first time you hear it. And chances seem pretty good that you'll hear it a lot in the coming months.
But "Lip Gloss" isn't pop-by-committee. When Kirkland recorded it late last year, a major-label contract wasn't even a distant possibility. Kirkland recorded the song in Atlanta after her father, who goes by the name True and runs the Brooklyn-based independent label Familiar Faces, flew her down and paid for her studio time. Musically, the track is a lot simpler and rawer than virtually anything that finds its way into pop-radio rotationcrafted by Southern rap producer James "Groove" Chambers, it sounds like a not-too-distant cousin of Clipse's eerily minimalist drug-dealing anthem "Grindin' "it's made up of kick drums and handclaps and nothing else.
Kirkland improvised the song's singsong hook in the studio, and then she wrote verses to go along with it. "When [Chambers] was making the beat, he probably was thinking, like, hard," she says, sitting in a Jive conference room on an April afternoon while a makeup artist teases out her eyelashes. "But when I heard the beat, I was having fun, like, 'This beat is so fun.' And that showed through the music. It's a really hard beat, but I'm not going hard on it."
Actually, she is going hard. She can rap, and there's a self-righteous snarl in her voice that belies the song's goofy novelty. It might not be a serious song, but it's a song that Kirkland takes seriously. " 'Lip Gloss' is not a wack song," she insists. " 'Lip Gloss' is not a regular bubblegum song, because it stands for something. It's a self-esteem song for women, and it's a beginning."
She elaborates: "When you say, like, 'The boys, they chase me after school,' it's telling a young girl that you don't have to chase boys. I do what I do for myself, and things that I do for myself will bring boys to me. And when you continue to sing it and sing it, you believe it. It's much bigger than just a simple bubblegum song."
Now, this defense might be a bit disingenuous; it's a tough sell to say that "Lip Gloss" isn't a bubblegum song when its lyrics actually include the words bubble gum. And Jive is certainly selling "Lip Gloss" as a bubblegum song. The song's video was filmed at Gershwin Middle School in the East New York section of Brooklyn, but there's no hint of urban grit in its ecstatic, primary-color fantasy world. The video begins with Kirkland and her mother pulling up to school. A morose Kirkland tells her mother that she wants to be a part of the cool crowd, and her mother responds by handing her a container of magic lip gloss. All of a sudden, girls jumping rope fly 10 feet in the air, cafeteria silverware dances by itself, and Kirkland is the most popular girl in school. This isn't how serious artists usually introduce themselves, but the video's narrative of triumphant personal transformation fits completely with Kirkland's emphasis on self-reliance.
"Lip Gloss" is emerging at a weird time culturally. A few years ago, New York was rap's undisputed commercial and cultural center. More recently, though, Southern rappers like T.I. and Young Jeezy have conquered rap-radio airwaves. Local titans like Jay-Z and 50 Cent continue to hang on, but the traditional, sample-based sound cultivated here is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it once was. Younger New York rappers have only been able to achieve heavy airplay and chart success with catchy, simplistic novelty songs like DJ Webstar and Young B's "Chicken Noodle Soup" or Mims's "This Is Why I'm Hot." Those tracks might name-check local neighborhoods or street corners, but musically they're much closer to Southern club rap than to old-school New York rap.
Hip-hop purists, then, have come to view these more playful artists with levels of hatred previously reserved for Bill O'ReillyLil Mama, a teenage female rapper with a hit song about makeup, makes for a particularly tempting target. On YouTube, the "Lip Gloss" video has been viewed over a million times, but the comments section is full of reactions like this: "this hip hop? or super commercial . . . we should be ashamed to call it music!" Or, alternately: "u people are on crack becuz at my school right now everybody likes that song becuz this song is for kids not stupid grown ups like u!!!"