La Bella Mafia (Atlantic)
A Little Deeper (Interscope)
In the testosterone-saturated world of hip-hop, the survival of the fittest for the female rapper is driven by what separates the girls from the women: balls. You want to stomp with the big boys, you better be fearless, feisty and willing to defy normalcy. In this realm exists a Wonder Woman need for a superpower beyond lyrical strength, ultimately forcing female rappers to pick a weapon of choice (and suitable costume) if they want to man the front lines. The Storms (Queen Latifah), Rogues (Da Brat), and She-Ras (Eve) of hip-hop can't win battles with plain lyrics; they must be ready to punch fools dead in the eye, blur the vision of their opponent with a cloud of questionable sexuality or transform themselves into a ride-or-die biker chick with a keen fashion sense.
Since the balls the rapstress possesses aren't corporeal, when she uses the same weapons as her male competitors -- aggressiveness, sexual prowess, and confidence -- it becomes a question of sensational morality rather than survival. Hence the inequitable frenzy when hypocritical arguments emerge regarding sexually explicit lyrics, motherhood or having more than one public relationship in a lifetime (the slut vs. stud mentality).
Lil' Kim (Kimberly Jones ) and U.K. rapper Ms. Dynamite (Niomi McLean-Daley) represent two distinct approaches to the hip-hop game and its flurry of hypocrisies. Lil' Kim dismisses the idea that women make less dough than men and flaunts materialistic proficiency: "Y'all get your diamonds from Jacob/ I ain't mad at ya/ I get mine straight out of Kimberly gold mine in Africa" (from "Doing It Way Big"). Ms. Dynamite, with biting curiosity, questions the popular hip-hop bandwagon core: "Who gives a damn about the ice on your hand if it's not too complex/ Tell me how many Africans died for the baguettes on your Rolex" (from "It Takes More").
Even with differing styles, both have assumed the respect-demanding position: one hand on the mic and the other with a firm grip on their imaginary sac of audacity and attitude.
Lil' Kim worked her way from Junior MAFIA worker bee to Queen Bee, and rocked the world with a revolutionary, abstract gain in the fight for womanly dominance, 1996's Hardcore. The self-proclaimed leader of the million-bitch march isn't a card-carrying member of the traditional feminist movement, but as buffoons serviced her while she watched cartoons, Lil' Kim cracked the sexual Pandora's box for frustrated women everywhere. A spew of raw-dog lyrics followed, and Kim catapulted into the forefront of a Hollyhood hip-hop sexual revolution, all in Chanel style.
During this sexual shift, Ms. Dynamite was just a teen-ager in the United Kingdom, where the battle of the female MC isn't watered down but a true representation of the overall gender stagnation in hip-hop. Gaining her start from rhyming at raves for fun, Ms. Dynamite, now 21, utilized wit, frankness and youthful charm to ignite her nation's garage-rap scene, through a resilient flow packaged in fireballs of consciousness. The infectious 2001 underground single "Booo!" an expos? on club violence, spurred an Alicia Keys-like buzz, pegging Ms. Dynamite for global success.
Her debut, "A Little Deeper" -- which came out last year in the United Kingdom and snookered four British Music Award nominations and two wins -- deviates from the garage sound that made her popular and casts an eclectic, adventurous blend of hip-hop, reggae, pop, soul and R&B. Ms. Dynamite doesn't sugarcoat, instead spewing there-really-isn't-a-better-way-to-say-it lyrics. "Put Him Out" is her no-holds-barred version of Erykah Badu's "Tyrone." "It Takes More" is a testament that life abounds outside of diamonds, sex and drugs and poses the question to the baller/shot-caller, "We leave this world alone, so who gives a fuck about the things you own?"
With a flow resembling American-style hip-hop and a soothingly familiar but unique voice, her mixture of rhyming and singing and her tough-love messages conjure the bravado of Lauryn Hill's innovative solo debut. And just like Hill, she may have to fight the backlashes that her deviations may generate. But throughout "A Little Deeper," Ms. Dynamite sticks to her creative guns, producing a collection that isn't afraid to examine substantive issues -- spanning HIV to black-on-black violence -- from a rare, opinionated female standpoint.
With "La Bella Mafia," her third time around, Lil' Kim declares herself a veteran, fostering some merit in a quantity- over-quality oriented industry. As so many artists like to pretend, Kim claims she's the "same bitch on the escalator," referring to her solo video debut in "No Time" almost seven years ago. Just by looking at her breasts, though, it's obvious things have changed. After her sour second attempt, 2000's Notorious K.I.M., which was overshadowed by, well, her shadow, she's augmented her game. With a new team -- aptly named the Beehive -- Kim readjusted her formula to offer more filling (the ostentatious kind) and less sex.
But don't think she has abandoned the lust boat. "Magic Stick," featuring 50 Cent, is a classic Kim ode to her tongue-in-cheek abilities. But her once-immutable licky-licky technique isn't strong enough these days to combat Eve's sophisticated spitfire or Foxy Brown's reinvention as P. Diddy's West Indian Bad Girl. And the fact that Mafia is jam-packed with guest appearances only confirms that stiff competition, ghostwriter allegations and comeback woes have made her nervous -- though she desperately tries to prove otherwise throughout, even arguing during an interlude, "Don't you know I write my own shit/ give that shit to Foxy."
Without a doubt, the most genuine track is "Heavenly Father," where Kim ventures beyond the designer name-dropping and tells of lessons learned in the past seven years, admitting, "Shit ain't been the same since B.I. died." Accordingly, Biggie was given a co-executive producer credit for "La Bella Mafia" because of the heaps of borrowed sound bites, stylistic techniques, lyrics and musical wits.
Still, "La Bella Mafia" earns an honorable mention within hip-hop's comeback-harder history. It steers clear of stale radio wannabes, features decent production and contains some classic Lil' Kim nuances, such as the bad-chick anthem "Doing It Way Big" and the street duet with Styles P, "Get in Touch With Us." Regardless of how much you cringe when the Queen Bee discusses her sexual escapades -- and even though you can't help but hit the dance floor when "The Jump Off" comes on -- Lil' Kim has kicked in doors with Manolo boots, allowing queens-in-training to strut right through.
Respect is everything in hip-hop. Without a magic formula, one thing is certain: Boldness is a prerequisite for the rapstress. Lil' Kim's remake of R. Kelly's "A Woman's Threat" (that she regretfully sings) and Ms. Dynamite's remake of Barrington Levy's "Too Experienced" show that these two MCs are unafraid to flip the male-dominated script to suit their own agendas in hip-hop's hard-knock life.