All about the Benjamins

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Take, for example, her latest single, "How Many Licks," featuring singer Sisqo. The song is catchy, and while I am no longer a Lil' Kim fan, even I have to admit that the chorus prevents me from turning the dial.

But the lyrics are abominable. Consider these lines: "High-class taste niggas got to spend paper / Lick me right the first time or you gotta do it over / Like its rehearsal for a Tootsie commercial." Since she went solo, the underlying message in all her songs has been, "I'll give you some ass, if you give me some cash."

The cover of Lil' Kim's latest album, the sophomoric Notorious K.I.M., further supports this. It features a picture of a topless Lil' Kim clasping her arms to cover her breasts. She is sporting blue contact lenses as well as a full head of curly, blond tendrils. Rows of diamond bracelets and watches rest on her arms. The message: "Buy me."

And to whom is she sending this message? White America, of course. After all, why get a nose job, blonde weave, and boob job unless you want pubescent, white, suburban boys and their older brothers to buy your album? Not only is Lil' Kim's behavior degrading to women, and especially black women, but it's also symbolic of a bigger problem in rap music: with the exception of a few rappers, rap has lost its way and marketed itself with a diamond-encrusted price tag.

From Jay-Z (a.k.a. Shawn Carter) to Sean "Puffy" Combs, rap today is all about the Benjamins. The scene has changed drastically since 1990, when rappers like Public Enemy, the X-Clan, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and KRS-1 were all preaching pro-black, anti-materialistic sentiments. They encouraged young African Americans to march for their rights, to think for themselves, and to "fight the power." And what about Salt-N-Pepa and Ladybug from Digable Planets, who gave the impression that young women could be sexy, pretty, and smart?

Now, in the year 2001, the message has become, "If I can't march for equality in society, I will buy it." In other words, the only color these rappers stress is green.

"It's not like it's one person's fault. Lil' Kim is no different from a lot of rappers out there now," says Posdnous (born Kevin Mercer), a rapper in the group De La Soul. He was recently in Seattle for a local radio station's promotional event, pushing his group's newest release, Art Official Intelligence.

The father of an eight-year-old girl, Posdnous says he won't let his daughter listen to Lil' Kim's music. But he doesn't criticize Lil' Kim or rappers like her. "This has been around for a while and started with rapper Slick Rick," says Posdnous, who at thirty-one has been on the rap scene for more than a decade. "He was the original bling-bling king. The problem is that there's no balance. You have Lil' Kim and Lauryn Hill."

In the early nineties, the rap scene was full of artists with "good" messages--"but not everyone was genuine," Posdnous says. "They were doing what was selling big back then."

"There are some positive rappers out there still, like Common and us, but positivity doesn't sell," he adds. "What sells is people talking how much they spend on cars and jewelry. And that's what the media focuses on and talks about."

It's true that there are some prodigious rappers out there today, but Lil' Kim and her ilk are better known in the mainstream than their more positive counterparts. How many people could ignore the four-foot-eleven-inch rapper after she appeared on the 1999 MTV Music Awards wearing a blue-sequined catsuit and nothing but a pastie covering her left breast?

Since that public spectacle--and many others afterwards--magazines and newspapers all over the country have been talking about Lil' Kim. She has been featured in Rolling Stone, Harper's Bazaar, Interview, Vogue, The Source, Vibe, Ebony, Essence, Jet, and the Internet music site Wall of Sound. Lil' Kim is even a spokesmodel for M.A.C. lipstick, Iceberg jeans, and Candie's shoes.

She has become a darling of the media. As Interview magazine noted wryly, "Paparazzi loves Lil' Kim because her clothing has such a precarious relationship with her body that she makes Elizabeth Hurley and Rose McGowan appear modest."

Undressed for success?

All about the Benjamins

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