Lil’ Kim’s fourth and finest album, Naked Truth, fulfills the tacit promise she made to female fans in 1995—when Junior Mafia dropped “Get Money” and an unknown BK shorty let loose with a flow so grimy and venomous it left us all open and hopeful. Living on her own since she was 16, Kimberly Jones had a survivor’s knowledge of the streets, a precarious proximity to the drug game, and the ability to spit fucking fire. Not only was she well equipped to breathe three-dimensional life into the “tricks and project bitches” hip-hop reduces to caricature, she was an MC with the potential to change the game. But the change wasn’t one many female fans were expecting or even liked. In 1996, Hardcore untethered a designer-clad ride-or-die bitch with a lethal pussy whose sexual politics boiled down to the hip-hop remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothing Going On but the Rent.” One of the first platinum female rap albums, Hardcore transformed Lil’ Kim, for better or worse, into a cultural icon—the hip-hop Madonna, some called her.
The parallels between the Queen Bee and Queen Madge go beyond blonde ambition. Both women captivated public imagination by using hypersexualized personas to challenge stereotypes and push women’s erotic boundaries. Feminists debated whether they were advancing the cause by widening women’s expression or pigeonholing it by limiting their options. Upside, rhythmic backatative for a right to great sex and orgasms. Downside, emphasis on sex appeal, looks, and packaging over skills—a downside that has plagued female rappers trying to get in the game ever since Kim launched her questionable revolution.
For those of us who were waiting for Kim to just spit, the sex seemed a crutch and a distraction. The Notorious K.I.M. and La Bella Mafia, both platinum, never realized “Get Money”
‘s potential. Instead the sex boasts and claims of independence rang increasingly false as her personal life revealed itself as male dependent—a perception unmitigated by a rumored Svengalian relationship with B.I.G. that included the mistress role in hip-hop’s most famous love triangle, or her emergence as hip-hop’s Coretta Scott King after his murder. Privately, Kim was struggling with her own insecurities, including dark-skin drama (numerous interviews revealed that her predilection for blond hair and contacts stemmed in part from childhood memories of being rejected in favor of lighter-hued girls), body-image issues followed by repeated plastic surgery, and a weird friendship with Pamela Anderson. All of this might have been interesting if Kim had rapped about it. But the MC women had hoped to bring it grimy and real just got more cartoonish.
Naked Truth comes from a very different place. Currently serving a year-long bid on a bullshit perjury conviction resulting, in part, from a decision to ride for boys who clearly did not have her best interests at heart, Kim finally shows us who she is. She spits from her gut, coming to terms with bad choices and betrayal (“them Mafia niggas is p-u-s-s-y/They took the stand on the D.A.’s side”), facing loss and consequences with courage and conviction (“D.A. wanna give me time in the pen/I’m from Brooklyn/I can do that time on my head”). An easy contender for best rap record of the year—even the gynephobic Source had to give it five mics— Naked Truth is simply classic: hip-hop bangers for days, sick flow (“Shots get into you/Bleeding like my menstrual”) buoyed by flawless production, real-life beef, and lyrical missiles aimed at an enemies list that includes the Manhattan D.A., Junior M.A.F.I.A., 50 Cent, Star Jones, Foxy, the media, and judgmental fashionistas. Equally impressive is Kim’s stylistic dexterity. Whether she’s flexing reggae riddims on “Lighters Up” (big up to Scott Storch for a wicked inversion of Damien Marley’s favorite Sly and Robbie track), serving Southern crunk with Big B. and Twista, or riding shotgun with B.I.G. on “All Good,” it’s clear at the top of her lyrical game, the Queen is bringing it back home to Brooklyn.
Her greatest coup, however, is avoiding the ultimate danger of the sex-sells game—the public’s tendency to wolf down any offering of female sexuality and then get bored with it. Next—leveling a career based on titillation requires Houdini-like powers of disappearance and reinvention. For Madonna that meant having some kids, getting married, relocating to Europe, acquiring a new accent, and writing children’s books. For Kim, it means a prison bid and stepping bravely into the fullness of who she is as an MC and a woman.