Nasty As She Wants To Be

When Lil' Kim burst onto the hip-hop playing field in 1996, she was truly a breath of fresh air. Granted, said air came out of a mouth so filthy she made Blowfly seem like a children's entertainer by comparison, but in a male-dominated genre, Kimberly Jones' suck and be sucked tales — and her no-holds-barred, straight-up raunchy (but somehow endearing) routines — gave rap a much-needed jolt of female-fueled sexual empowerment. Kim's skills — heavily and admittedly influenced by her then lover and mentor, the late Biggie Smalls — and her bad-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold antics and posturing may have made some tsk-tsk at the language coming out of this Brooklyn girl's lips, but fans (male and female) saw past the shock value and found the humor and the playfulness within.

Four years off in the rap game is an eternity, and the proof of Kim's star power is that her public profile hasn't diminished one iota in the interim. In fact, she's more ubiquitous and well known than ever; still an off-the-wall combination of ghetto hooker, burlesque stripper and prom queen gone to seed. If Lil' Kim is a character — as, indeed, most rap stars are — at least it's a character that's unpredictable and outrageous. As she says on "Who's Number One," a funked-up shout out to Brooklyn and her crew, "I'm nastier than Howard Stern." And that's an understatement.

As one might expect, sex, of the raw 'n' raunchy kind, is on Kim's dirty mind, and on cuts like the fierce "Suck My Dick" (RealAudio excerpt) (which flips that expression on its metaphoric rear end) and "Custom Made," which incorporates the disco classic "French Kiss," Kim is lip-smackingly sex crazed and potent. The problem is that Notorious K.I.M. (RealAudio excerpt) sounds way too worked on, way too thought out. The spontaneity and straight-outta-the-hood sass that made hardcore rap a guilty pleasure is muted in favor of weak duets with "hot" artist like Sisqó ("How Many Licks") or misguided faux gangsta poses à la "Revolution" (RealAudio excerpt), which, oddly, features Grace Jones.

Worse yet is "Don't Mess With Me," which uses a sample from Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker. The track takes an already played-out "You 're gonna rue the day you left me, creep" scenario ("You said I was a diamond and you were a pearl/ So daddy, how could you do this to your baby girl?") and renders it even more clichéd. Kim is far better — and far more believable — when she's going for the jugular on the title track, where she rips into an unnamed female rapper (hint: Foxy Brown) with a hair-pulling glee that's downright infectious. When Kim spits out lines like "Here's this chick running round with this fake ass raps, having panic attacks ... stop payin' those niggas to write your shit," it's really like some sort of fabulous episode of hip-hop Dynasty. We're talking major-claw catfight here.

No one doubts Lil' Kim's lyrical abilities (though her frequent references to Biggie, while heartfelt, do grow redundant), but something about this CD just doesn't ring true. The fault may well lie with the lengthy time it took to complete this work; time spent working out contractual hassles, thematic issues, producer drama and, of course, Kim dealing with Biggie's death. Still, the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen and labor-intensive sound is often obvious. The nasty joy that is Lil' Kim is reworked and refined — when all we really want is to hear her explode in all her bawdy, in-your-face glory.