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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?
Kim was soon safely ensconced on a faux canopy bed, ringed by an inner circle of hulking security guards and beyond them a throng of mostly female onlookers jostling for a peek. But if you weren't one of the media crews on hand for the requisite sound bite, the pointlessness of simply standing around soon became apparent.
One aggrieved fan decided she'd had enough, taking an angry swing from behind at a blissfully unaware Belkys Nerey as the WSVN-TV (Channel 7) talking head was escorted through the crush with her Deco Drive cameraman. "What, it's okay for a white chick to talk to Kim but not a black woman?" the fan yelled as security grabbed her. Spying Kulchur furiously scribbling notes as she was bundled out to the street, she snapped, "So I gotta be a white boy with a pad and a pen to meet Kim?" Apparently so.
Kulchur settled onto a pillow next to Kim and tried to divine the inner secrets of divadom by screaming above the roar into her ear. "I don't like people who use the word diva," Kim purred with a smile. "I prefer queen. Divas have attitude all the time, but when a queen gets annoyed, it's for a good reason." Like say, improperly tinted limo windows? Kim emitted a childlike giggle, a sound that didn't seem to jibe with her stern, trash-talking persona. She mugged for a cameraman angling in, and then earnestly explained, "People like the fact that I don't give a damn! People can identify with that."
So just what are the ingredients of maintaining royal status? "Always keep a positive attitude, always remember to smile," Kim responded with rehearsed sincerity. Pressed, her eyes sparkled and she conceded you also need "money, diamonds, and glamour."
That, however, was the formula four years ago. In hip-hop, where "old school" now signifies the distant era of the early Nineties, four years is a long time. The Notorious KIM, Lil' Kim's followup to Hardcore, has been repeatedly delayed, re-recorded, and now finally promised for next week. Although the titularly referenced Biggie has been safely martyred into pop mythology (with a never-ending stream of vault-scraping posthumous product that threatens to dwarf his output while alive), the rest of 1996's Zeitgeist is showing signs of wear. Biggie cohort Puff Daddy (Kim's current producer and the grand architect of ghetto fabulosity) has already fallen victim to slackening record sales. An even more telling sign of Puff Daddy's fading luster has been the response to his recent gunplay travails in a NYC nightclub: Instead of sympathy or outrage, the predominate response has been public snickering.
"Oh yeah, I'm very, very nervous," Kim said of her new album's imminent release, which, if its first single is any indication, eschews the slinky Seventies soul grooves and James Brown piano breaks of Hardcore for a modern Timbaland-style digitized timbre. "I'm just happy that it's finally coming out," the queen continued. "It's very hard for me to balance my career right now. You have to deal with the hip-hop market and the pop market. My hip-hop fans don't want me to cross over, but I'm not going to cater to only one set of fans."
Between Kim's giddy preening for the cameras and her concern over marketing, one wonders how much of her "big momma thang" is a shtick sculpted by a now-deceased Svengali. Where does Lil' Kim end and Kimberly Jones begin? At the question Kim blinked, as if confused by the notion of untangling the two. Silence. Kulchur attempted a flanking maneuver. Is there some facet of Lil' Kim the public is unaware of? Back on familiar terrain, Kim leaned in conspiratorially and confided, "At times I can be shy."
Send your music news, local releases, and general gunk to Brett Sokol at 2800 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, FL 33137. Fax to 305-571-7678.