Lil’ Kim: Notes On An Icon

Suppose the words of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter matter (we all know they do). In that case, Lil’ Kim, the Brooklynite and longtime friend of Bey’s husband Jay-Z, should have a big smile on her face because, as the other Queen Bee declared a few years ago on her culture-bending single “Formation”: “You know you that b**** when you cause all of this conversation.”

Well Lil’ Kim is that b****.

Rivaled only by Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim is arguably the most widely discussed and dissected female rapper of the twentieth century. That’s in the media—from Right On! and The New York Times to Essence and Out—and in academia—Professor Greg Thomas of Syracuse University taught the accredited course “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen B@#$h 101—the Life & Times of Lil’ Kim.” “Her lyrical artistry is nothing short of revolutionary,” Thomas told ABC Radio. “It’s the art with the most profound sexual politics I’ve ever seen anywhere.”

Rey Ortiz Peach Bodysuit. Laurel DeWitt Gold Nose Chain. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.

Kimberly Denise Jones has created art that should be in a collection, as she mentioned to XXL magazine about her debut album saying, “Hard Core … it’s something different … it’s something in a museum that you don’t put a number on.” She’s also worn art that is in a collection—the Money Manicure, a piece created for Lil’ Kim by pioneering nail tech Bernadette Thompson that was secured by The Museum of Modern Art for its permanent collection in 2018.

“When I think of cultural disruption I think of innovators. I think of people who check game, and I’ve been told that about myself.”

-Lil’ Kim

Black media and its mavens had varying thoughts on Lil’ Kim. The October 2000 cover of Essence—shot by Timothy White and styled by Misa Hylton—declared “The Big Problem With Lil’ Kim.” Famed womanist writer bell hooks had a joyous time interviewing the rapper for the May 1997 cover of Paper magazine, saying, “More dangerous than any words that come out of Lil’ Kim’s mouth are the forces of repressive puritanical morality that seek to silence her.” “Lil’ Kim and the New Possibility Model,” by Emma Bracy, places Lil’ Kim on the same level as Hillary Clinton. “I wore pasties on election night. I wanted to give a nod to a woman who has actually influenced my fashion choices and my feminism: America’s first mainstream female gangsta rapper, Kimberly Jones.”

Let’s focus on what matters, folks. Lil’ Kim is a gift. Let’s protect Megan and Lil’ Kim (and every Black woman). Thee Stallion ran free around the world in Mugler in 2022 because Lil’ Kim was Y2K jet-setting to Milan in Versace first. Kim’s ferocious flow and dynamic lyricism, as well as the courageous discussion of sexuality, including candid talk of her vagina nearly thirty years ago, when some women today have been socialized to use infantile slang like “va-jay-jay,” as well as her bold fashion choices, make her an icon. And she is still working, as evidenced in the images accompanying this article.

Laurel DeWitt Chain Mail Top and Bottoms. Gucci Bra, Panty, Face Mask. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.

“This year, I worked leading up to my birthday,” says Lil’ Kim, who recently celebrated her forty-ninth journey around the sun. The “work” she refers to is the photo shoot for this issue, for which she has pulled double duty as both cover subject and creative contributor. Those familiar with her career remember that Lil’ Kim’s imaging has been equally as important as her music.

Lil’ Kim understands the power of the captured image. She has worked with the world’s top photographers, including David LaChapelle and Annie Leibovitz, who included Lil’ Kim in her book and global exhibition, Women: New Portraits.

To read the rest of this cover story, pick up the Fall 2023 Hip-Hop 50 commemorative print edition of EBONY Magazine in partnership with Mass Appeal at, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Walgreens, Target, Publix, Safeway, Kroger, Books A Million, and more, plus select retailers in London and South Africa on September 19th.

Editor-in-Chief & SVP, Programming: Marielle Bobo
Creative Director: Rashida Morgan-Brown
Executive Producer: Tracey Woods
On-Set: Producer Suze Lee
Video Editing: Mega Media
Stylist: Paris Chea
Hair Stylists: Hachoo and V Houston 
Makeup Artist: Kimora Mulan 
Prop Stylist: John Geary 
Lighting Tech: Colin Jacob 
Digital Tech: Kim Tran 
Photo Assistants: Calvin Mendez, Troy Upperman, Briana Edwards 
Production Assistants: Gade De Santana, Apu Gomes, Ramie Roth, Anthony Espinoza

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Updated: September 19, 2023 — 12:02 pm