NEW YORK — Sure, Lil Mama's height played a large part in picking her stage name, but if you spend any time with the pint-size rapper, you'll realize exactly where the latter half of her moniker comes from.
"OK, so can we get some privacy please? Thank you, guys," Lil Mama yelled out to a few scattered bodies in the room before the interview began. "I just want to give my full attention.
"Hello," she continued, laughing. "You guys do know what privacy is like, right?"
Make no mistake about it: Mama is definitely in charge. It's that same boldness that led Lil Mama, born Niatia Kirkland, 17, to write a song about — of all things — her lip gloss, which is the name of her rumbling, breakout hit about a candy-coated pucker.
"It's like a natural beauty," Lil Mama explained of "Lip Gloss." "It's not foundation, it's just lip gloss. Any girl can wear it, so it's something all girls can relate to, even myself. Every day when I go to school, not only myself, but other girls, forget it, lip gloss in the morning. You don't understand. If you go to high school ... you gonna see them [she starts making a hand motion like she's applying lip gloss].
"You're gonna feel like it just brings everything together," she added.
Much like her favorite accessory, family is what brought everything together for Lil Mama. The Brooklyn, New York, native was born into a musical mix. Her mother and grandfather were both singers, and her father operated an independent record label in East New York. Lil Mama's been in and around the studio since she was a toddler.
Initially, however, a career involving music was just an afterthought. She'd mess around with cousins, even toying with the idea of starting a modern-day Jackson 5. But not everyone was as involved as seriously as they needed to be.
"My mother would sing around the house every day, every morning, and that inspired me, because the songs she used to sing often, we would catch the words and we would be singing it and we sort of got the hint that we had voices too," Lil Mama said.
But being around her father, who had ties to the music industry, kept the rapper grounded. "People tried to sell us dreams," she said. "But I was like, 'Whatever.' "
Eventually Lil Mama turned to poetry and dancing as her next forms of expression. In her early teens, her family temporarily relocated to Harlem, New York, at the height of the Harlem Shake craze. Mama and her friends would hang out and dance at the famed Bronx roller rink Skate Key.
Around the same time, Lil Mama and her cousin started turning their poetry into raps. Once her family moved back to Brooklyn, Lil Mama began fully engaging herself around her father's studio.
"[Groups] would be in there rhyming, and I'd look at the atmosphere," she explained. "But I wrote poetry since I knew I could. Right there I'm kind of confused — I don't know which way I want to go with it, but then I just started writing rhymes.
"They were kind of cute, but I just kept going through with it," Lil Mama said about her raps. "And I took it serious and it meant something to me when I became a part of it."
Mama and one of her father's artists started releasing mixtape-style compilations around 1998, and a few years later she met Ali Samii, who used to work as a part of DMX's management team.
Samii partnered Lil Mama with an Atlanta producer, and "Lip Gloss" was born. The independent record started gathering minor buzz in New York. But she got her big break when Hot 97's DJ Enuff agreed to play the record on-air late in 2006 after Lil Mama pestered him.
Now with a record deal at Jive and a full push for her debut album, Voice of the Young People, which is due by the end of the year, Lil Mama is ready to display her full range as an artist, rooted in the varied subject matter of her poetry. She's currently working with Swizz Beatz and Scott Storch, but as always, it's family first — more specifically, it's her mama that she wants to impress most.
"I created songs that my mom can listen to and be like, 'Yo, this is deep,' " Lil Mama said. "I made songs [she] can listen to and relate to and she knows this really went on and knows that her baby knows how to put it to music and express herself. And I know that this is something that's real, so my mother would listen to it and be like, 'Go 'head, you doing your thing.'
"I developed under [my mother], so she's still looking at me like from the very beginning," Mama continued. "And I believe that as time went by, she was finally like, 'You got it.' "