The Regal Life of Queen Bee Lil' Kim
Published Oct 09, 2019Standing at 4-foot-11, Kimberly "Lil' Kim" Jones has been one of the most revered and feared rappers of her time — not just as a woman who's maintained her position in this game for 25 years, but also as a rapper who impressed Notorious B.I.G. on the spot in 1994. She has secured her title as the "Queen Bitch," giving the world a discography that is meant to impress, but on her own terms only. As a pioneer, Lil' Kim ushered rap music into an era that flipped the script on misogyny, owning her sexual freedom and demanding respect at every turn. Though often described as vulgar, Lil' Kim's career kicked down the doors for a new generation of women rappers to follow.
But through her success, Lil' Kim has faced pain. From a broken childhood and abusive relationships, to criminal cases and bankruptcy claims, and, of course, the passing of her lover and mentor Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim has a lifetime of trials that could've broken her completely — and yet, in 2019, she's returning stronger than ever as a mother, as a rapper, and of course, as the Queen Bee.
1974 to 1993
Kimberly Denise Jones Is born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant borough of Brooklyn, New York, in 1974 (or 1975). Her parents, who have a volatile and abusive relationship, divorce when Kim is 8. She finds herself homeless with her mother and her older brother, living out of their car and sleeping on the couches of family friends. Unable to properly take care of Kimberly and her brother, her mother gives custody to their father.
Father and daughter have a good relationship until Kimberly has her first childhood crush, around age 13. The innocent relationship outrages her father, and their relationship becomes both verbally and physically abusive. Despite still longing for his acceptance, Kimberly never feels "good enough," noting in a Newsweek interview from 2000, "It was like I could do nothing right. Everything about me was wrong — my hair, my clothes, just me."
Unable to get along with her father, at 11, Kimberly starts leaving the house more often and much later at night. Her father re-marries, but their relationship becomes even more distant. After getting into an argument with him, Kimberley allegedly attempts to stab him with a pair of scissors, resulting in him kicking her out of the house at 15.
On the streets once again, Kimberly begins peddling drugs for boyfriends and working odd jobs. She also starts dating Shawn Powell, who is sent to prison shortly after they meet. Regardless, the two get engaged. "I did what it took to survive. I ran errands for drug dealers, lived with them — whatever it took to make ends meet," she'll recall. Despite not having stability in her life, Kimberly attends the Sarah J. Hale Vocational High School in Brooklyn, and later the Brooklyn College Academy, alongside a young Foxy Brown, with whom she'd compete in the future.
At 17, Kimberly meets 19-year-old up-and-coming rapper Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, who is about to reinvent himself as the Notorious B.I.G. On their first meeting, he asks her to rap a freestyle on the street corner, and is impressed. Shortly after meeting him, she drops out of school, breaks off her engagement and becomes his protégé.
Biggie Smalls offers Kim a form of protection and stability via his "B.I.G. family," which includes Sean "Puffy" Combs, Mary J. Blige and Damion "D-Roc" Butler, as well as James "Lil Caesar" Lloyd, Antoine "Banga" Spain, and Money-L, who would later form Junior M.A.F.I.A (Masters at Finding Intelligent Attitudes).
Her relationship with Notorious B.I.G. grows from mentorship into love; their relationship is volatile, despite Biggie's mother later describing it as "peanut butter and jelly" and noting that "Kim and Christopher were the same voice." Reports of emotional and physical abuse surface years later, including supposedly having a gun pulled on her and admitting to being choked until she passed out. Despite their relationship, in August 1994, Biggie marries singer Faith Evans after knowing her for eight days, yet continues his relationship with Lil' Kim, and later, rapper Charli Baltimore as well.
By the time she's 19 years old, Kimberly starts her transformation in into Lil' Kim, a blonde, blue-eyed rapper with new, fake boobs. Vogue's editor-at-large André Leon Talley will call her "the black Madonna"; however, the physical changes prove to be a result of much larger self-esteem issues. In a 2000 interview, Lil' Kim will reveal, "I have low self-esteem and I always have. Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, 'How I can I compete with that?' Being a regular black girl wasn't good enough."
In July, Biggie's New Jersey home is raided by police and Lil' Kim is arrested for marijuana possession. Though minor, it hints at the loyalty Lil' Kim has to Biggie, which she'll go on to rap about through the years.
Junior M.A.F.I.A. — Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Cease, Trife and Larceny of the Snakes, Nino Brown, Chico Del Vec, Kleptomaniac, Capone, Bugsy and Lil' Kim (the only woman of the group) — release their first and only album, Conspiracy, in August. Though it doesn't receive critical attention, it debuts at #8 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and sells just under 70,000 copies in its first week. However, the true success of the album is the breakout of Lil' Kim, who subsequently starts working on her debut album. Junior M.A.F.I.A. single "Player's Anthem," as well as "Get Money," receives much praise, and the group are invited on tour with Mary J. Blige.
As Biggie Smalls' second album, Life After Death, sells eight-times platinum, he starts executive producing Lil' Kim's debut, Hard Core.
"He always wanted me to stand on my own, so Hard Core was mainly me, and a couple of songs that he influenced," Kim will reveal on Hot 97's "Ebro in the Morning" in 2017. "But when we were together, it always turned into a lover's quarrel or a lover's nest. Although I wanted him to be there to make sure my shit was tight, a lot of times it wasn't the best thing."
Hard Core, co-produced by Bad Boy Entertainment's Puff Daddy, gets attention for its raw sexuality and edginess, embracing the hardcore hip-hop of her male counterparts. With provocative lyrics and a "bad bitch" attitude, it receives favourable reviews, high sales and street credibility, making Hard Core one of the most successful debuts by any woman rapper.
Hard Core also leads Lil' Kim to her first Grammy nomination, as well as bragging rights as the first female rapper with three consecutive #1 singles on Billboard's rap chart ("No Time," "Not Tonight" and "Crush on You," the latter of which features Lil' Cease, as Lil' Kim's then-pregnancy prevents her from finishing the song. Lil' Kim would later suffer a miscarriage).
Though she connects with the experiences of her fan base, Lil' Kim also receives backlash. Civil Rights activist and politician C. Delores Tucker lobbies her label's parent company, Time Warner, stating that the music was "filth" and contributed to "moral corruption" of young black youth. Regardless, the album peaks at #11 on the U.S. Billboard 200 (the highest ranking album for a woman at that time), #3 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and sells 78,000 copies in its first week. By 2001, it is certified double-platinum and by 2018 has sold over six million copies worldwide.
With the success of the album, Lil' Kim anoints herself Queen Bee, also known as Queen Bitch, a secondary persona she will use throughout her career.
In October, Faith Evans gives birth to Biggie Smalls' second child, Christopher Wallace Jr.
Six months after the murder of Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G. is shot and killed on March 9 in Los Angeles. Lil' Kim, who was still known to be his girlfriend despite him being married, is preparing for a show in New York at the time of the shooting. Reports circulate that a devastated Kim stays in the late rapper's New Jersey condo following his death, alongside his mother Voletta Wallace and first child, T'yanna Wallace. In an interview three years later, Lil' Kim will reveal that she keeps some of his ashes in an urn at her home, and tells Newsweek "You'd think it would get easier with time, but it doesn't."
In June, alongside Missy Elliott, Angie Martinez, Da Brat and TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, Lil' Kim drops the "Not Tonight (Ladies Night)" remix. It peaks at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the rap chart. It also receives a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, and appears on the movie soundtrack Nothing to Lose.
1998 to 1999
A year to the day after Notorious B.I.G.'s murder, Lil' Kim joins Puff Daddy and other Bad Boy Entertainment artists on the "No Way Out" tour. The tour grosses roughly $16M, making it one of the most profitable rap tours ever.
Though still grappling with the death of Biggie Smalls, Lil' Kim is featured on several songs, including a posthumous Notorious B.I.G. release, alongside Puff Daddy, titled, "Notorious B.I.G." On the song, she addresses the likeness of Foxy Brown for the second time, which jump-starts their beef. Foxy Brown will later release diss Lil' Kim on "Bang Bang", which is featured on Capone-N-Noreaga's album, The Reunion.
In summer, 12 songs from Lil' Kim's forthcoming album, The Notorious K.I.M., are leaked. It pushes the original release date from August to November, then twice more the following year. As she returns to the studio to re-work the album, Lil' Kim also starts venturing into fashion and modelling, signing to Wilhelmina Models. She is featured in campaigns for Versace, Baby Phat and Iceberg. She starts her own label under Atlantic Records: Queen Bee Entertainment.
At the 1999 MTV Music Awards, Lil' Kim debuts her most iconic look to date: a lilac, mermaid-themed, sequined one-shoulder piece with the second shoulder bare and one breast covered by nothing more than a shell-shaped nipple pastie. The look becomes one of the most talked-about red carpet outfits ever.
After delays, The Notorious K.I.M. is released on June 27. Executive produced by Puff Daddy, the album captures where Lil' Kim is mentally: still mourning, still bold, still sexy. "They think that it comes off raunchy. and that I talk slutty because my last album was really sexual. This album is really sexual too. But I think people should just see a young woman trying to be a big, big famous person, a big celebrity and a big character, just having fun at what she does," she tells the L.A. Times.
The album, which features "No Matter What They Say" and "How Many Licks," debuts at #4 on the Billboard 200, and sells roughly 229K copies — nearly tripling the sales of Hard Core.
2001 to 2002
By the end of 2001, rumours spread that Lil' Kim has left Junior M.A.F.I.A., cutting ties with its members as well as Puff Daddy (now Diddy). For the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack, Lil' Kim teams up with Christina Aguilera, P!nk and Mya, as well as Missy Elliott and Rockwilder, to remake Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan's "Lady Marmalade." The mashup single spends five weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and becomes Lil' Kim's first #1 hit. By December, it sells 5.2M copies worldwide; it wins a 2002 Grammy and two MTV Video Music Awards, and holds the record for being the longest-reigning all-women collaboration on the Billboard Top 40.
Lil' Kim joins MAC Cosmetics (alongside Mary J. Blige) as a poster girl for their Viva Glam III lipstick, which benefits HIV/AIDS organizations worldwide. Two years later, Lil' Kim will continue her philanthropic efforts through her own foundation, Lil' Kim Cares, which focuses on repairing the lives of abused women and children, as well as those affected by HIV/AIDS. It's a cause close to her heart; she becomes the victim of an abusive relationship with Damion "World" Hardy, whom she reports repeatedly punched her, leading to several nose surgeries.
2003 to 2005
Lil' Kim releases La Bella Mafia in March 2004, which features "Magic Stick" and "The Jump Off." It earns her nominations for two Grammy awards and five Source awards.
George Thomas, an English professor at Syracuse University, develops a college course named after Lil' Kim: "Hip Hop Eshu Queen Bitch 101." One assignment is for students to analyze a skit from her sophomore album, The Notorious K.I.M.
Lil' Kim appears in an Apple commercial, becomes a spokesperson for Old Navy, lands features in videogames and comic books, and launches a designer watch collection, Royalty by Lil' Kim, as well as her first clothing line, Hollyhood.
Following a 2001 shooting incident outside of Hot 97's radio station, which involves members of Lil' Kim's entourage and rival group Capone-N-Noreaga, Lil' Kim testifies in court as a witness in 2003. She claims she did not see her then-co-manager and another member of Junior M.A.F.I.A. at the scene; however, the jury would later see security images that proved otherwise. She is charged with three counts of perjury, one count of conspiracy and one count of obstruction of justice. The trial is resolved in July 2005, resulting in a one-year prison sentence and three years' probation.
While incarcerated, Lil' Kim releases her fourth studio album, The Naked Truth, on September 25, 2005. It debuts at #6 on Billboard, sells 109K copies in its first week, and receives the honorary 5-mic sting from The Source. As a part of the album rollout, BET launches a six-part TV series in March 2006, Lil' Kim: Countdown to Lockdown. It documents her final 14 days of freedom prior to going to jail, and is viewed almost two million times.
As Lil' Kim continues to serve her prison sentence, Blondie's Debbie Harry releases a song in tribute, titled "Dirty and Deep," which will be included on Harry's 2007 album Necessary Evil. A compilation of remixes from both The Naked Truth and Hard Core is also released, but doesn't chart.
Lil' Kim serves roughly 12 months of her prison sentence at the Federal Detention City in Center City, Philadelphia, and is released on July 6, 2006. She makes her first TV appearance as a presenter at the MTV Music Video Awards in August.
2007 to 2008
Lil' Kim serves as a judge on reality TV shows The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll, and Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious, in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Lil' Kim announces her departure from Atlantic Records in 2008 and releases her first mixtape, Ms. G.O.A.T., on June 3. It doesn't go far, but establishes her street presence once more.
2009 to 2011
Lil' Kim appears as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars in 2009.
Lil' Kim returns to music with her first tour in ten years in 2010. She follows up with her second mixtape, Black Friday, in February 2011 — the cover features a decapitated Nicki Minaj, and the mixtape itself also fires at Minaj several times, a beef that had been subtly brewing for a while. That Black Friday followed the release of Minaj's Pink Friday is also no coincidence.
In June 2011, a Monica song that samples the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Who Shot Ya?" and features from both Lil' Kim and Rick Ross, is leaked. However, Lil' Kim would then be removed fully due to contractual issues with Biggie's estate and the disapproval of Ms. Wallace.
At the end of November, 2011, she releases "I Am Not the One" and hints at a new EP, but it never comes out.
In an interview with MTV's "Sucker Free," Lil' Kim reveals that she is "banned" from releasing music due to several lawsuits from previous record labels, including Atlantic and Track Masters. With the exception of free mixtapes, she says, "Legally, I wasn't allowed or able to do music. And till this day, I'm not going to say I'm glad that the lawsuit happened with Track Masters, but it made me more of a businesswoman."
After settling the lawsuits, Kim releases a series of singles, including "If You Love Me" and the leaked "Keys to the City," which features Young Jeezy. Her "Return of the Queen" tour grosses roughly $6M.
In an April interview with XXL, Lil' Kim reveals that she's working on a new album and releases "Looks Like Money" in July, as well as cover art to a new mixtape, Hard Core 2K13. Lil' Kim gets pregnant with her first child.
2014 to 2017
In June 2014, Lil' Kim gives birth to daughter Royal Reign.
After taking a break, Lil' Kim drops new mistake, Lil' Kim Season, on March 27, 2016. In August, Lil' Kim re-connects with Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Entertainment for their 20th anniversary reunion tour.
In 2017, a collaboration between Faith Evans and Lil' Kim shocks fans. "Loving You For Life" is featured on Evans' posthumous collaboration album with the Notorious B.I.G., The King & I, released on May 19. The feature ends their 20-year feud.
Though she continues to release loose singles, in May, Lil' Kim files for bankruptcy, declaring that she's $4M in debt, behind $664,474 in mortgage payments, and owes the IRS more than $1.8M in back taxes. Her $2.3M New Jersey home is put up for auction on May 11, with a starting bid of $100, but is taken down in June after she pays $32,297 to her creditors.
Lil' Kim releases the Bkorn-produced single "Nasty One", hinting that she may make a comeback. In an interview with Billboard about the direction of her music, she says, "My music doesn't have to be super gangster all the time. It's nice to remind people that this is what I do, but at the end of the day, I was a kid when I released my first album. Now I'm this woman, this sexy kitten that knows myself now. I like having fun. I deserve to have fun. I had a whole baby."
On March 29, Lil' Kim announces via Twitter that she will be releasing her new album 9 on May 17 (since delayed twice, now out October 11), and releases a video, "Go Awff." 9 marks Lil' Kim's first release in 14 years.
Essential Lil' Kim
Conspiracy (Big Beat)
Lil' Kim's rap debut didn't come as a solo project, but alongside her group Junior M.A.F.I.A. and their first (and only) album Conspiracy. Notorious B.I.G. oversaw the album and wrote a bulk of the music, but as the only woman, Lil' Kim stood out. The success of Conspiracy would launch Lil' Kim's solo career.
Hard Core (Big Beat/Atlantic)
Released in November 1996, solo debut Hard Core was described as "porno rap" for its explicit sexuality, but Hard Core was about more that selling sex and a Mafioso attitude — this was Kim's way of reclaiming her sexuality and exposing the misogyny she faced in the rap industry Hard Core opened doors for a new wave of feminism in hip-hop.
The Naked Truth (Queen Bee/Atlantic)
Twenty years after her debut, Lil' Kim returned with her fourth studio album, The Naked Truth, in September 2005, a release date coinciding with the first day of a jail sentence. Despite an understandable lack of promotion, singles like "Lighters Up" and "Whoa" became street anthems. The Naked Truth is also the only album by a woman to receive a 5-mic review from The Source.