“When Aunt Dot comes, oh brother/It’s like five Bloody Mary’s, one after another/She have you stressed, no wearin’ white, no sex/And when she gets vexed, guess what happens next…”
It was the year 2000, a few months before my 12th birthday, and I was screaming metaphoric rap lyrics about my period from the confines of my Brooklyn project bedroom.
Not only was I too young to be aggravated by five days of unsolicited abstinence, I was also a shy, frail, virgin nerd wearing big round glasses, who’d only experienced her “time of the month” for less than a year. On the wall adjacent to my blue, metal-framed twin sized bed, my older sister had a gorgeous woman on display. Splashing fearlessly in a body of blue water, her blonde hair barely hid her face, as she gave a piercing look to the camera. Slim, in a gold-hued dress, her skin nearly blended into her outfit as she seductively posed for the shot. On the cover of VIBE Magazine, she was a crouching “Sex Kitten,” peering into the lens as a sparkling silver bodysuit hugged her petite frame. In an advertisement for Iceberg Jeans, she showed off a flat midsection with a white crop-top, donning platinum blonde tresses and drenched in brown skin. She was Lil’ Kim, and her latest album, The Notorious K.I.M., drowned out my father’s disapproval.
I wasn’t the rebel type; I was still afraid to use curse words with my friends. I didn’t have the gall to recite her affirmations outside the safe haven of the music. But the exposure to her politics was slowly crafting my outlook. Beneath the echoing moans on “Custom Made (Give It to You),” she unapologetically demanded her cash. She instructed misogynists to take their own advice on “Suck My D**k.” She proudly proclaimed the title of a “Single Black Female.” She boldly adopted the gangster, braggadocious style of her male Junior M.A.F.I.A. cohorts on “Notorious Kim.” She forayed into fellatio with “How Many Licks.” I was not as brave. I was not as defiant. Not yet.
This album wasn’t our first encounter. I sat in wonderment as my sister yelled “I used to be scared of the d**k, now I throw lips to the s**t.” I watched my cousins snatch the broomstick from each other to pantomime the question, “You wanna bumble with the bee, huh,” buzzing sounds and all. I marveled at her colorful wigs in the “Crush On You” video, and bounced my shoulders with hers as she invited a suitor to slide on her ice like the “escapades.” She’d been in my orbit for a few years, circling my subconscious with professions of a #CarefreeBlackWoman before the hashtag was a thing. Unbeknownst to myself at the time, I was taking mental note: Stack your paper. Rule the boys club. Own your sexuality. And don’t take no s**t. For black girls from the ‘hood like me – who’d been surrounded with a million reasons to lack our luster – Lil’ Kim gleamed with her own raunchy flavor of feminism.
I wasn’t as into Foxy Brown, though we were also from the same place. I couldn’t appreciate the beautiful complexities of Lauryn Hill’s miseducation that early on. Missy Elliott was just fun at the time; her artistic fearlessness escaped me. Trina was sister’s second favorite, but she never made my list. I truly loved Eve – just not as much. Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa and MC Lyte all felt like older, wiser elders. Later, I would fall for Nicki Minaj, mainly because she reminded me of Lil’ Kim. All roads pointed me back to her.
As I sat in the audience for VH1’s 2016 Hip-Hop Honors, those days on my blue metal-framed bed returned to my mind. Anxious about how they would honor one of my favorite rappers ever, I was able to tune out the criticisms of her over the years – a conversation that drowned out the love she has received, and still deserves to. Yes, it was true: the Lil’ Kim on my wall in 2000 looked strikingly different from the Lil’ Kim in the risers at the David Geffen Hall in New York City that night. Her skin was lighter, her nose was thinner, her cheekbones were higher, her thighs and derrière were larger than ever. A product of what many point to as self-hate, her trips under the knife obliterated any resemblance to the woman who once stood beside The Notorious B.I.G. She is often ridiculed in the same way Michael Jackson was for the same face-altering practices – but no one ever dared to dethrone the King of Pop. And Lil’ Kim rightfully earned her throne.
Decades later, young women everywhere turn to passages from the Book of Beyoncé to guide them in their paths of righteousness. We praise her style. We praise her sexuality. We praise her business acumen. But it would behoove us to remember: the sting of another Queen Bee left a mark years before.
(Photos from left: Christina Radish/Redferns, Kevin Mazur Archive 1/WireImage, Scott Gries)