With her hardcore posturing and sexually explicit rhymes, rapper Lil' Kim blazed a trail for other like-minded and liberated female MCs in the '90s and beyond. Beginning with her 1996 debut Hard Core, she notched a trio of platinum-certified albums, and scored a global number one hit in 2001 with "Lady Marmalade," a high-profile collaboration with Christina Aguilera, P!nk, and Mya. In 2005, the promotion of her fourth effort The Naked Truth suffered as she served a year-long prison sentence. Parting ways with major labels, she remained independent in the coming years, issuing a handful of mixtapes and branching out to television, appearing on Dancing with the Stars in 2009. After over a decade without a new album, her fifth studio full-length 9 materialized in 2019.
A native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Lil' Kim was raised by her parents until they split up when she was nine years old. Following their separation, she lived with her father, but he threw her out of the house when she was a teenager. As a teen, she lived with her friends and, occasionally, on the streets. Eventually, she and her rhyming skills came to the attention of Biggie Smalls, who helped her cultivate her career. Smalls recruited her as a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Kim was a key part of the group's hit debut single, "Player's Anthem." Kim also made a big impression on the remainder of Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s 1995 debut album, Conspiracy.
Following its release, Kim appeared on records by Mona Lisa, the Isley Brothers, Total, and Skin Deep. For her debut album, she worked with a variety of producers, including Sean "Puffy" Combs, High Class, Jermaine Dupri, and Ski. The result, Hard Core, was released in late 1996. As the album's title implies, Kim was a rarity among female rappers — one who not only concentrated on edgy hardcore rap but also explicit sexuality, two territories that had long been the province of male rappers. Kim's near-pornographic lyrics and hard-edged rhythms made her an anomaly within hip-hop, but Hard Core proved that she was no novelty, as it garnered positive reviews and strong sales, debuting at number 11 on the pop charts. The first single from the album, "No Time," a duet with Sean "Puffy" Combs, became a number one rap single. The platinum-certified Notorious K.I.M. followed in 2000, peaking at number four on the Billboard 200 and topping the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Moulin Rouge's "Lady Marmalade" kept her on the charts and in the pop consciousness in 2001, becoming a worldwide hit. In 2003, Kim issued her third platinum album, La Bella Mafia, which peaked at number five.
Two years later, Kim was in court defending herself against a perjury charge. She was eventually convicted of lying to a federal grand jury about her knowledge of a 2001 shooting outside of New York's influential radio station Hot 97 FM. Kim claimed she wasn't aware that her manager and a friend were present, but surveillance cameras proved the two were there. In September of that year, her new album, The Naked Truth, appeared while its "Lighters Up" single was dominating urban radio. However, tied up with legal issues, Kim couldn't promote the album as much as she wanted to and the effort eventually slipped off the charts. Documenting the rapper's preparations for incarceration, the BET reality show Lil' Kim: Countdown to Lockdown first aired in March 2006 and became the most watched series debut in the network's history.
On July 3, 2006, she was released on good behavior after serving ten months of her 12-month sentence. Kim exited the prison in a silver Rolls-Royce. She quickly returned to the music scene in 2007, participating in a number of remixes, collaborations, and concert appearances with the likes of Diddy, Keyshia Cole, Missy Elliott, and 50 Cent, among others. The following year, Kim released her first mixtape Ms. G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time), produced by Mister Cee, Lance Rivera, the Trackmasters, and DJ Whookid. Freed from a major label, she continued to issue mixtapes, including 2011's Black Friday, 2014's Hard Core 2K14, and 2016's Lil Kim Season. In the years before the release of her fifth official studio album, she hopped on Missy Elliott's "I'm Better" and released her own tracks "Nasty One," "Go Awff," and "Found You" with O.T. Genasis and City Girls. The latter song was the first official single from her album 9. 9 was released in late 2019 and featured guest appearances from Rich the Kid, Rick Ross, City Girls, and others. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine