Lil' Kim is five feet five in six-inch heels, but she's not afraid of anyone -- even Mike Tyson. Fresh off the plane from presenting the "Album of the Year" prize at the Source Awards in Los Angeles, Kim is holding court in a downtown photo studio, riveting a small army of publicists, stylists, and hangers-on with the story of her flirtatious encounter with the notoriously womanizing boxer the night before. Backstage during the ceremony, Tyson walked up to her and said, "Kim, I'm gonna knock you out," the rapper recalls in her high-pitched Minnie Mouse voice. "I was like, 'No, Mike, I'm gonna knock you out.' "
The room erupts in laughter, and Kim trains her satiric sights on another target: herself. "Y'all shoulda seen this outfit I had on," she says, kidding with her friends. "As soon as I stepped out of that limo, everyone wanted to shoot me, from the E! Network to the New York Times." The outfit in question? A see-through-and-skin-color ensemble that obscured her private parts with tufts of mink.
In her dress, public life, and frank, foul-mouthed rap music, Lil' Kim has made herself the embodiment of bawdy, acquisitive outrageousness -- the materialistic Mae West of hip-hop. Vogue praised her as a "one-woman assault on subtle good taste"; "Page Six" chronicles her appearances at parties nearly as much as Puffy Combs's, and rappers like Foxy Brown have borrowed her women-on-top, sex-obsessed style. Along the way -- in deft raps about oral sex, expensive automobiles, and the complex relationship between the two -- she proved women can be the subject instead of merely the objects in aggressive, street-credible hip-hop.
Three years after the release of her gloriously smutty debut album, Hard Core, Kim finds herself as famous for her "ghetto fabulous" style as for her music; today, she's wearing a blonde wig, oversize cop-style sunglasses, a shocking-pink halter top, torn blue jeans, and a thick diamond bracelet (Kim says her style icon is her mom. "My mother used to dress so fly," she says. "She put me onto Fendi bags"). Indeed, those looking for her to repeat the same over-the-top explicitness -- Hard Core opened with the sound of a man masturbating to a ficticious porno film starring Kim -- will be disappointed by her upcoming, as-yet-untitled album, which includes songs about the plague of gun violence and the late Notorious B.I.G. "This album is mostly not sexual," Kim declares, "because I don't think a person can be summed up by one feeling or style." She pauses, looking contemplative. "The real me is on this album -- there's a little bit of everything here and that's truer to who I am."
Born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Kim (born Kimberly Denise Jones) grew up close to her mother, but her parents divorced when she was 9, and her father, an army-reserve officer and bus driver, won custody. "Me and my father were always clashing," recalls Kim. So she ran away at the age of 14, only to come back a few months later and get kicked out of the house by her father. After that, "I went into the streets doing whatever I had to do to survive," Kim says without a hint of emotion. "I was in the drug game. I always had a boyfriend, though, so I always had somewhere to stay." She also sometimes stayed with her aunt in a tough housing project in Fort Greene. "She lived right on top of the project's recreation room, and they would have talent shows down there," Kim remembers. "So I would rhyme and even try and D.J. That's where this all started." Eventually, her rhyming caught the attention of neighborhood rapper Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.).
Wallace became an instant mentor -- "He persuaded me to go all the way with my sexuality on my records" -- an eventual boyfriend, and an invaluable music-industry connection. He recruited her to rap with his protégés Junior M.A.F.I.A. on 1995's "Player's Anthem," and her insistent rhyming style and cocky attitude (Kim still refers to herself as the "Queen Bee") made her stand out among the tough-talking female rappers seeking to emulate the gruff style of their male peers.
On Hard Core, Kim's in-your-face raunch ("Tell me what's on your mind / When your tongue's in the pussy," she memorably rapped to a lover) raised the bar about as high as it would go, and playful songs like "Crush on You" (a duet with the Notorious B.I.G.) became instant Hot 97 anthems. The music industry manufactured imitators by the truckload, but none could rap with Kim's wit and panache. Like Prince, Kim was a joyous, thoroughly original libertine.
She caused more than her share of controversy: A rumor circulated that Kim had starred in a porno film before becoming a rapper ("I would never do that," she says), and some took Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)" -- with its admonition "Girlfriend / Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem" -- as a put-down of oversexed female rappers like Kim. "I'm the one who did Hard Core, and I love Lauryn Hill's music," Kim says. "Listen, there are a lot of people who love me and love Lauryn Hill at the same time." She's less charitable about Foxy Brown, who many have accused of copying her fur-bikini persona. "I don't even like to think about her. I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but she has nothing to do with Lil' Kim."
So with a knowing bat of her long eyelashes, Kim moves the conversation back to her album, which will feature guest appearances by Grace Jones and drag diva RuPaul. "After doing Hard Core, I learned that I have a huge gay following," Kim says enthusiastically. "And I love that! So I had to do a song with RuPaul."
Kim also talks excitedly about the clothing line she's launching in 2000 -- Queen Beetique -- and about finding the perfect movie vehicle for her brash persona after her brief but memorable appearance in the teen comedy She's All That. "You know why I liked that movie?" Kim asks. "Because people didn't know it was me." (She was billed as Kimberly Jones.) "I've been offered a lot of movies," she says, "but I'm just waiting for the movie that'll let me be me."