Lil' Kim Fights To Earn Back Street Cred On Mafia LP

Album trades pop sheen for rough tracks, including song with 50 Cent.

Since she debuted in 1996 with her game-changing Hard Core LP, Lil' Kim's gone through many changes, making jaw-dropping augmentations to her body and even cutting off her old crew, the Junior M.A.F.I.A. Still, Kim maintains she's the same Brooklyn bad girl at heart.

And she has to be. Although her last LP, Notorious K.I.M., was certified platinum, the streets turned deaf ears and their noses up to the album's pop-influenced tracks. And with established rap tigresses like Missy Elliott and Eve dropping albums more frequently and maintaining a presence on the airwaves — not to mention Foxy Brown pampering the 'hood with hellacious mixtape offerings — if the Queen Bee wants to hold onto the crown, she has to find more of a balance on her on her new La Bella Mafia, which is also the name of her new clique.

Taking more control of the direction of this album, Kim shed the polished influence of Notorious K.I.M.'s executive producer, P. Diddy, and rode on rougher tracks provided by beatmaking broncos like Timbaland, Kanye West, DJ Twinz, Mobb Deep's Havoc and Swizz Beatz.

One of La Bella Mafia's most bullying songs is an R&B record — "This Is a Warning," a remake of R. Kelly's 2001 hit "Woman's Threat." The black Erica Kane sings in the same cadence of the R., even mimicking Kelly's trademark "Oh, oh, oh" cries. Kim laments how girls want to take her style, watch, cars, and blood, among other things. But the Bed-Stuy hottie is far from a damsel in distress, cautioning that if people insist on pushing her, she'll get some of her goons to run up in their houses.

Kim also talks about spending time indoors on "Magic Stick," but the only beatdowns that are being handed out are in the bedroom. "I got the magic stick," brags guest star 50 Cent in a almost childlike, sing-songy flow, over a track that seems like it was pilfered from a circus sideshow. "I know if I could hit it once I could hit it twice." Kim answers 50 back, telling him that she can show him a thing or too about magic.

Although they rhyme about "Thug Luv," there's barely enough time for intimacy on Kim's collaboration with Twista — there's too much plundering going on. The duo, who break speed limits with their rapping, are in full "Mickey and Malory mode," busting shots, marauding the block on 24-inch rims, snatching chains and trying to fill their bank accounts with eight-digit figures. "We love each other the way we love war," Twista says.

"This Is Who I Am" is less cinematic and more introspective, with the Kim discussing the trends she set and the people who followed her lead. "No matter what you do, you can't take the 'hood out me/ People been around me for years, still don't know sh-- about me," she rhymes. "Got everybody rapping about jewelry and cars ... / I'm the real thing, y'all karaoke stars."

Kim released a handful of tracks from the album to the mixtape circuit as way to build anticipation. Among the songs bubbling underground are "(When Kim Say) Can You Hear Me Now?" featuring Missy Elliott and "Get in Touch With Us," a collaboration with the LOX's Styles. One cut fans won't hear until the album drops is a top secret duet between Kim and Notorious B.I.G.

Although a video from La Bella Mafia, which is due March 4, has yet to hit the airwaves, a clip for "The Jump Off" is in the can and due soon. According to a spokesperson, the video for "I Came Back for You," which was also recently shot, will probably end up on a Lil' Kim DVD.