Lil Kim – ‘9’ review: an icon returns, as lewd and confrontational as ever

The trailblazing rapper's fifth album isn't an essential listen, exactly, but it is a timely reminder of the qualities that make her such an influential and endearing star

Lil Kim hasn’t always got her due. When she first broke through with her 1996 masterpiece ‘Hard Core’, some critics assumed that the album was ghostwritten by her mentor Notorious B.I.G. (she refuted the claim in a recent interview). For years, discussion about her music was sidelined as focus fell instead on her feuds – with Nicki Minaj, for instance – and stints on reality TV, such as Dancing With The Stars.

It’s an injustice she addressed with typical candour and give-a-fuck spirit on ‘Shut Up B**tch’, an album track from 2005’s accomplished ‘The Naked Truth’: “I heard it all throughout my career… ‘I heard she broke’ / ‘I heard she mad rich’ / ‘Hey yo Kim can spit’ / ‘Nah,  I heard Biggie wrote her shit’ / Shut up, bitch!” Yet it seems pop culture has – finally – begun to catch up with Kimberley Denise Jones.

She was the talk of this week’s BET Hip-Hop Awards, where she received the Icon Award and performed a series of her massively influential hits – ‘Crush On You’ with Lil Cease, the Junior M.A.F.I.A. cut ‘Player’s Anthem’ – before calling out the organisation for not having already recognised her contribution to music. “I used to be a little tight at BET for not having given me no doggone award,” she said. “Now I realise that when you’re the mother and you set trends… you get rewarded differently.”

Kim’s reward is right there in the careers of Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B (the latter “shows me nothing but love”, Kim said in that aforementioned interview): artists who have followed in her trailblazing steps. And now we have ‘9’, her long-delayed fifth album, a nine-track record on which she reminds us, “I’m still ‘Hard Core’.” Where ‘The Naked Truth’, her last album, was released while Kim served time for perjury and conveyed a suitable level of angst and claustrophobia, ‘9’ is celebratory and relaxed.

Soulful opener ‘Pray For Me’, which features Rick Ross and a hook crooned by the caramel-voiced Musiq Soulchild, boasts little of the sass and urgency with which Kim is associated, except for when she purrs, “I ain’t worried about a bitch taking you from me… I’m more worried about police taking you from me”. It’s amazing how little her voice has changed in the last 25 years: that brittle timbre, the pouted insouciance, the sense of glamour in every note.

It’s perhaps the reason that ‘Bag’ – on which she delivers the ‘Hard Core’ nod – a by-the-numbers trap track, is less compelling. Who needs to hear that iconic voice, all piercing clarity and attitude, shrouded in autotune? ‘Go Awff’, the record’s lead single, accompanied by a blockbusting video, is a more successful update of Kim’s signature sound, its hook cribbed from The xx’s 2017 track ‘Dangerous’, languid and sultry yet still laced with the fighting spirit that’s defined so much of her work.

‘You Are Not Alone’ is the most quintessential Kim track here, even if it does feature yet more trap sounds and a perhaps unwise Michael Jackson reference (“You are not alone / I am here with you,” she croons to the tune of MJ’s 1995 hit of the same name). She sounds badass and big-hearted, shouting out B.I.G, as she always has: “I’m always there like your shadow / Haters taking shots but they ain’t got enough ammo… What Big started, I’m about to finish.” Brooding and underpinned by an undulating Spanish guitar refrain, it’s a reminder of how well she can do reflective material (see 2000’s ‘Aunt Dot’).

‘Found You’, featuring Atlanta rapper O.T. Genesis and upcoming Miami rap duo City Girls, initially sounds like a lost mid-noughties Southern hip-hop radio smash, before Kim rides in with lewd rhymes that prove she hasn’t lost the filthy turn of phrase that outraged the media back in the ’90s: “Make a n***a cum fast / Then I let him use my face as a cum rag.” It’s just short of cringeworthy because… well, she’s Lil Kim.

That track sounds dated, yes, and retreads the same old ground, but then again Kim is her own industry, her own sound. She’s “the one and only,” as she said on 2003’s “Came Back For You’. She can get away with this stuff because she invented it. She recently said she’s “part of the new wave and the new generation” because she spent years being paid to attend clubs with Diddy, and kept her ears open, but – to be honest – there’s little evidence of that on ‘9’.

And that’s absolutely fine. As she said, you get rewarded differently when you‘ve been as wildly influential as Lil Kim, and made space for the amazing talent that followed in her footsteps. You wouldn’t necessarily call ‘9’ an essential release, but it is a timely reminder that she should be celebrated for her enormous contribution to culture. It’s lewd, contrarian and confrontational – all the qualities that make Kim an icon.

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