To be in Lil' Kim's presence is to be in the presence of rap royalty. From her daring 1996 debut album, Hard Core, to her new single, "Nasty One," the Brooklyn rapper has spit uncompromising verses and sported unparalleled looks on her way to becoming a true giant – despite her small stature – in the hip-hop genre and culture. And while she is quick to give credit to those before her who paved the way for her to become an artist, her influence on the music and fashion of today is undeniable. Simply put, there is only one Lil' Kim.
The GRAMMY-winning artist stopped by our headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., to give us the lowdown on "Nasty One," tease her upcoming fifth full-length album, dish on her fashion influences, discuss the joys of motherhood, relive her GRAMMY Moment, and much more.
You've got new music, with a new sound. "Nasty One." has your edge but with a dancehall vibe. How did this song come together?
"Nasty One" is my first official single off of my upcoming album, and I am so excited because I get to do something different but still me. So [on] "Nasty One," I wanted to bring the Caribbean flavor because I'm from Brooklyn, so we have all kind of culture there, Caribbean, Latin, that's a big part of what Brooklyn is made up of, so I wanted to kind of give my tribute to Brooklyn and just doing something that I haven't done in a while. I mean, I have "Lighters Up" from Naked Truth, but that was the last kind of Caribbean feel song that I've done, so "Nasty One" was like a happy medium because I had to give that sex kitten Lil' Kim.
Your album is due out in November - what else do you have up your sleeve on this album, and can you tease any collaborations or anyone you'd love to work with this time around?
Well, I want to, but I don't want to give away all of them because I don't want to jinx it… But one of my sisters, which is Remy Ma, we know she's on there, but I would love to collaborate with Kendrick Lamar. I love him, and I recently grew a newfound love for Kendrick Lamar because after seeing him act. I think that's his debut acting role, on "Power." I'm even more in love with him because he showed me that this is what a star is made of. The music is his platform but he's so dimensional as far as talent.
Your fans can be very opinionated about you exploring new sounds. Do you find it difficult balancing your artistic freedom with pleasing your fan base?
I love the fact that my fans are so passionate. I thank God all of the time that I have the fan base that I have because they give me a cult following. They go with me to the end through thick and thin… And they're always motivating me and pushing me. But then they get on my nerves because if I take too long with a song, or if I go in a direction where they don't want me to go but I feel and I know it's the best thing for my life and my career, I have to do it regardless of what they say, and it's a constant struggle between myself and my fans. Now, I will say, sometimes I do follow some of their advice and I give them exactly what they want. But guys, you have to come to a happy medium with me. Just realize I do know what I'm doing. It may take long sometimes, but you guys, trust me. I'm a hustler first, so we've got to get this money [laughs].
For some artists, albums are like their children. Which album in your catalog would you consider your favorite child?
Every time I make an album, they are always like my babies. It's like I birth them, seriously… My first love, it would probably be Hard Core. But… I do have to say favorite, or the one that maybe is closer to my heart, is La Bella Mafia, and I would say that because after Biggie passed, La Bella Mafia was the first album I got to do where I got to be super creative on my own, because after Biggie passed, the first album I had to do on my own without him around was Notorious K.I.M. and I love that album, but it was like I had so many people telling me which way to go, and then Puffy, the executive producer, which I love working with Puffy, but he's my big brother. I had to do my big brother's thing and I didn't really get to be in control. So I felt [like] Janet Jackson on the La Bella Mafia.
You had control.
Yeah, I had more control, and it was fun because I got to do all of the stuff I wanted to do and I got to experiment... That's when I kind of started singing more. I mean, I did sing on Notorious K.I.M., but I kind of started getting melody and stuff like that in there, and that's one of my biggest albums. One of my biggest records that stayed at number one without a video came from La Bella Mafia and that's "Magic Stick" with 50 Cent. That song was on the charts, I think it was No. 1 for 13 weeks without a video. It's crazy.
That's unheard of! Any other moments stick out from those early years of your career.
"Came Back For You" is one of my first Hard Core records that got nominated for a GRAMMY, and Kanye [West] always says ... You know he did that [record], and Kanye was just a little kid with braces, and he was like, "Kim, I love you. I want to be a part of your label." I'm like, me? It was funny because he kind of wanted to roll with me. I was like, "that's a blessing," but I didn't know a thing about forming an artist or helping artists or stuff like that. I was like, "I love you any which way I can help you." He was like, "okay, I got some songs for you." He played "Came Back For You" and I was like, "this is the one." And that song got nominated for a GRAMMY, so when I see Kanye, Kanye goes, "Kim, you know that's the first song I've ever gotten nominated for a GRAMMY for. I was like, "see? I'm your good luck charm."… I love him. He's like my family.
No doubt about it, you're a fashion icon, and a chameleon who’s able to switch it up. What is inspiring your looks these days?
You know, it's funny. My mom, when she was younger, she looked just like Diana Ross… and she loved Diana Ross, so that made sense. And I used to always watch Lady Sings the Blues, my mom said, when I was young, I was like, "mommy, play it again. Play it again!" And she said I would just do all the moves and I would go in her closet and I would make the clothes try to resemble what was in that movie. So I always took that style with me, and so these days, I kind of feel like Diana Ross is inside.
I've been doing a lot more changes [in my new videos] because I wanted to bring that young Hollywood with the old Hollywood mix. I like happy mediums when it comes to anything. My music, my fashion ... That's just me. I like to be right in the middle. Not too over the top, but not too under dressed. I think, these days, I've just been looking for that chic look but still fly… A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
Hip-hop and R&B is #1 right now with consumers, according to all the streaming data. How does it feel to see the genre you helped pioneer come out on top in 2018?
Yeah. That's amazing. I think that the growth and the accomplishment in R&B and Hip Hop is just a great thing. There were times, even before I came into music, probably before I was born, when rap music was an underground thing. It would never make it mainstream, is what people thought. People like the Sugarhill Gang… I always did my homework. Even though I was young, a baby probably when they came out or whatever, as I got older, I did my homework, and I wanted to know all the female rappers that probably didn't know about... It's like they had to kind of break down doors for us.
You broke down the doors for a lot of other people, too. And not just in music. In pop culture, fashion. So how does it feel to see your influence playing out around you? Any specific instances catch your eye?
When Beyoncé dresses up like Lil' Kim on Halloween and calls it National Lil' Kim Day, I was living… I was like, "that is so awesome." And just to look at how Beyoncé's pictures next to mine, were exactly alike. She did not miss a beat. I'm talking about down to my mole, down to the necklace I wore, down to the color eyeshadow that I wore, down to the Chanel sign being spray painted in my blue wig. I was living. I love her for that. Thank you, Beyoncé. That was just a moment. I will never forget that. That was just so dope.
You have a beautiful daughter, Royal Reign. She just turned four. When do you think you'll give her permission to listen to a Lil' Kim record?
You know what's so funny? When I'm recording now, she has her favorites. She liked "Nasty One" before it even came out… She loves the groove. She's very smart. She's very musically inclined, because we always played music around her. It's funny, because people think when you have a baby, you have to be very, very quiet. No. It's sometimes the opposite. Sometimes you have to play a little noise so that they can stay asleep. When it's too quiet, a little pin drop will wake them up. I kind of kept music around her, and so she loves it. It's funny because if there's songs with curses in it, she'll censor herself. She goes [silent pause] and she'll keep singing, so she knows the difference, and I like that. So that means it won't be hard to teach her when she gets older, right from wrong.
I'm curious, outside of music, what are some things you enjoy? Maybe something that helps you relax or recharge your batteries. Do you have any surprising hobbies?
I do like to play tennis. I have a tennis court at my house. Sometimes that helps, because it's like, if you're angry about something… Sometimes, it's just chilling in the back of the house with the baby, letting her ride the bike. Or sometimes it's just going out for ice cream. I like to drive around in the neighborhood. Driving in the car is really relaxing to me, so when I get to go on long trips, that's ... I get to kick back and relax…. What else is one of my hobbies? Shopping. Shopping, shopping, shopping [laughs]. It relaxes [me], but when it starts to get five hours later, I get really hungry and I still don't stop. I'm still like "Let's go to the next store," and everyone is like, "Kim, are you sure? We haven't eaten yet." I'm like, "no. We've got to go. Let's push through. Gotta push through. We've got to get those Louboutins by seven." [laughs]