By Chaz Kangas
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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!!!"
"I get on the Internet, and I read some of these things," says Kirkland. "I feel like I'm a very strong person, and I don't let it get me down because I know who I am."
But she's also quick to dispel the notion that she's a novelty pop artist. " 'Lip Gloss' is a very moody songit's an upbeat, feel-good kind of song," she says. "But I have some other songs that are on my album that are more emotional. Some are hard, and some are really representing where I came from."
Kirkland names Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah as influences, and she speaks with a great deal of passion and conviction about her often misogynistic peers. (On Lil Wayne: "I feel like he's very vulgar and disrespectful to women, and I don't like that, but certain songs I can really relate to.") She's already chosen the title of her debut album, which she's still recording: Voice of the Young People. On the song "Hate Me," she raps, "I'm still pretty with no makeup/I still shine with no Jacob." Spurning Jacob the Jeweler might not exactly be a revolutionary statement, but it's pretty audacious for someone getting famous for a song about cosmetics.
Kirkland has been rapping since she was 10. She's taken ballet and drama classes. She left high school before recording "Lip Gloss." She's spent a great deal of her life training and preparing to be a star, and somehow, that drive seems to be a product of her own ambitions, not those of overzealous stage parents. "I knew that this was something I wanted to do, and this is something that I went after really hard," Kirkland says. "It's my career. It's something that I love." She wants the world to know that there's more to her than "Lip Gloss." Before she can do that, though, she'll have to make sure everyone hears "Lip Gloss."
Two floors above the conference room where Kirkland's makeup artist applies some finishing touches, the label has set up another small conference room for that afternoon's teen-mag meet and greet. They've decorated the room with pink-and-red balloons and publicity posters, and laid out a few hundred copies of the "Lip Gloss" CD single on the table. They've also rented a cotton candy machine and a chocolate fountain; the smell of sugar inside the closed room is overpowering and borderline oppressive. A flat-screen TV plays the "Lip Gloss" video over and over, loudly, on a continuous loop.
Photograph by Howard Huang; styling by Jill Topol; assistant styling by Cathy Mallebranche; hair and makeup by Shalea Walker for Walker's Apothecary; jacket by Paul Frank; shirt and skirt by Urban Outfitters; shoes by Miss Sixty.
When Kirkland finally walks into the room, she holds the informal press conference together with a casual professionalism. One reporter asks her whether she's signed any endorsement deals with MAC or L'Oréal, the two cosmetics brands she name-checks in "Lip Gloss"; Kirkland says she hasn't finalized any deals, but she also gives a few statements that sound suspiciously like endorsements. "MAC, it just gives you that extra shine," she says. "I use both of those brands." Another reporter asks what it was like to hear her song on the radio for the first time"I was happy" is the earth-shattering reply. Someone asks about Don Imus and the media's most recent crusade against offensive lyrics in rap, and she gives a diplomatic reply: "Just because I rap and I sing and I do all these things, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that all these people are wrong." She plays her next single, "Put It Down," at brain-melting volume, animatedly rapping along the whole time.
Kirkland conducts the group interview with such ease and competence, in fact, that it comes as a minor shock when she finally answers a question the way a normal 17-year-old girl would. One reporter asks her about her first kiss, and Kirkland immediately looks extremely uncomfortable. "Do I really have to answer this question?" she asks. And then: "No, I'm just playing." She divulges a few vague details but doesn't want to name the boy. Later, the same reporter asks if there are any celebrities that Kirkland would like to kiss. ("I'm sorry!" the reporter pleads. "I work for a teen mag!") Kirkland stares at the reporter as if she had three heads, refusing to name anyone even after a couple of other inquisitors egg her on. It's suddenly a weird and uncomfortable spectacle: a room full of adult media professionals asking a teenager about the details of her personal life. If Kirkland is going to become a celebrity herself, she's going to have to get used to moments like this one.
In the meantime, though, she's doing all she can to maintain something like a normal childhood. Kirkland's done a lot of traveling to perform at radio-station concerts, and she seems to enjoy the early stages of the promotional blitz. "Half of these kids [at these shows] are really young like me, like the dancers and the people behind the actual artists," she says. "They're young, and they're fun to be around, so I get to know them."
She still lives with her father in an East New York housing project, and she recently caught an early flight back home from an Atlanta performance so that she could skate at Brooklyn's Empire Roller Skating Center on the last night before it closed permanently. "Usually every Saturday I go skating if I don't have anything going on," she says. "But these weekends that's coming up in the future are going to be so busy that I may not have a Saturday."