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Of course, one does need to be a bit discriminating when throwing around the term diva. Any number of pretenders to the throne can be found sashaying and shantaying up and down Washington Avenue after dark, both with and without Adam's apples, tucked and untucked. Mainstream pop has offered up its own contenders as well: If you flipped on the TV to VH1's recent "Divas" concert, you would have witnessed a steady parade of lithe young hopefuls marching onstage for their duets alongside Diana Ross, attempting to throw shade with the fright-wigged master. But the tiara just didn't seem to fit right. Sorry, girls, but the successor to Miss Ross must possess not just vocal chops and a regal bearing but also the ineffable ability to suggest that a bitch slap could be forthcoming at any moment.
Lil' Kim, the New York City rapper-cum-runway star, would seem to fit the bill perfectly. After all the singer has already proudly admitted to stabbing her father in the shoulder with a pair of scissors during a teenage spat; one can only imagine her reaction to an assistant who produces the wrong gown.
Like all nascent matriarchs, Lil' Kim (née Kimberly Jones) first appeared in a supporting role. She was the nineteen-year-old sole female member of the Junior M.A.F.I.A., verbally sparring with her mentor, the late Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie) on the group's 1995 Conspiracy album. At first glance Biggie was an unlikely celebrity: His morbid obesity hardly screamed "sex appeal," while his phlegmatic rapping style recalled Fat Albert sidekick Mushmouth. The sampling choices for the outfit's songs were hardly more auspicious; artists such as ESG, Kool and the Gang, and Curtis Mayfield had already been extensively mined.
Still, cuts such as "Player's Anthem" and "Get Money" were head-noddingly infectious, and in a genre that likes its stars larger than life, the Junior M.A.F.I.A. ably delivered, in the process helping to dramatically shift hip-hop's entire aesthetic paradigm. Let the West Coast rappers dress in their low-slung jeans and doo-rags while tooling around town in '64 Impalas. For Biggie's gang -- and soon for the bulk of chart-bound hip-hop -- it was all about suiting up in Armani, driving a Mercedes, and exchanging that bottle of malt liquor for a magnum of champagne.
It was Lil' Kim, however, who stole the show on Conspiracy, slinging lyrics that would make a porn star blush. Certainly there were female forerunners who had flipped the script on rap's virulent machismo, but none had laid it out as bluntly as the opening line on Lil' Kim's 1996 solo debut Hardcore: "I used to be scared of the dick/Now I throw lips to the shit./Handle it." This was no subservient sex fantasy, though. Kim was in fact confronting certain circles of black male culture in which performing oral sex on a woman carries an emasculating stigma, a phobia this self-described "bad clit on the stroll" fully exploited. When she wasn't busy "shopping for Prada bags at Bloomingdale's," she was ordering any would-be suitors to drop to their knees and assume the position. Her needs came first.
Was this act cartoonlike? Sure. But amid the ensuing media hoopla, with its competing labels of Kim as either a "community disgrace" or a paragon of do-me feminism, Hardcore went platinum. The fashion world also quickly grew enamored of this over-the-top character, and the past few years have seen Kim making as many appearances in Women's Wear Daily as in the music press.
True to diva form, Lil' Kim was looking to be a no-show last Wednesday evening at the South Beach nightspot B.E.D. The occasion may have been the launch of M.A.C.'s Viva Glam III lipstick, whose sales proceeds were being donated to various AIDS-related charities (the cosmetics company claims $14 million has been disbursed to date; a M.A.C. spokeswoman has promised a significant amount will be given to an as-yet unnamed Miami organization), but the charity component was apparently doing little to sway Kim's behavior. Prior to an earlier M.A.C. shindig in New York City, she had refused to set foot in a company limo sent to fetch her; its windows weren't tinted dark enough. Here on South Beach there were even more distressing concerns, like a monsoon burst of rain that had one handler desperately pleading into her cell phone for nearly two hours in an attempt to coax Kim out of her Delano digs and down to B.E.D.
Finally Lil' Kim made her entrance, preceded by a dozen-strong entourage of thugged-out bruisers, nearly giving the already testy phalanx of photographers a collective coronary as they blocked prime shots by warmly hugging and back-slapping one another, perhaps celebrating their successful navigation of the ten feet from their tour bus to B.E.D.'s front door. Once they were cleared to the side, all eyes were on Kim, seemingly hell-bent on redefining the meaning of gauche in a purple knit wool bikini draped with sparkling Chanel jewelry, Wonder Woman gold cuffs, a curly blond wig, and purple-tinted aviator sunglasses. As a wall of flashes popped, the main controversy among the women in the crowd centered not on Kim's place within the postfeminist pantheon, but on the dramatic, gold-plated stiletto heels that helped push her four-foot eleven-inch frame up to eye level: Giuseppi Zenote or Manolo Blahnik?