hat the hell?’ That was the first thing I uttered after listening to this album for the first time. When Lil’ Kim debuted, she was successful because she had dirty rhymes upon dirty rhymes and I’ll be the first to admit, it was sexy as all hell, she was hot, and she flaunted it. However, she didn’t seem to learn too much from her affiliation with the Notorious B.I.G., as her flow and lyrics were fairly basic. Still, she was one of the few choices for mainstream fans looking for a female MC.
Foxy Brown came along and provided some competition. The conflict between the MCs is certainly well documented, but the one thing it made both of them do is to step up their game. After their issues, Foxy released her album Broken Silence, which, although her commercially worst, was her critically best and offered a lot of insight into her personality. Now we are given Kim’s third, La Bella Mafia, which is truly an amazing effort. It’s not perfect and it’s not classic, but it is surprisingly good.
On her early albums, Kim always had decent production but here, she gets some of the best I’ve heard in this short year. She had burned a lot of bridges, especially with some of the top names in hip-hop. Most of them wouldn’t produce for her, no matter how much money she offered. The kinder, sexier (I said it, there), less commercial Kim has no problem getting good help from the likes of Havoc and Timbaland.
Her lyrics really shine on “When Kim Say (Can You Hear Me Now)”, where she spits “If gettin’ money is a crime, then I confess / Ain’t about money? I could care less / When you see us comin’ know it’s time to collect / Niggas be like, ‘Here come the IRS!’ / Kick down doors, shoot through walls / Queen Bee’s a movement, fight for the cause / Got a bite that’s bigger than ‘Jaws’ / With or without my boys, I still make noise”. Her flow on the song needs to be heard to be believed, as she switches it up from her normal gruff voice and has a little bit of fun. The old Kim wanted to be Biggie in the worst way. Now she’s finally starting to develop her own personality and talent. Kim is now in a class of female MCs that includes only Rah Digga, Foxy Brown and MC Lyte—and she’s more confident, funny, and sexy than any of them (except Foxy, who really is foxy). Kudos to her for trying to get better.
Even though she’s improved much on her own, the best tracks on the album are without a doubt those with a guest. “Hold It Now”, featuring Havoc, samples the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”, and both lyricists hold their weight, following up on the awesome collaboration we first heard on the “Quiet Storm” remix. Even though Mr. Cheeks isn’t all that talented and doesn’t say a lot on “The Jump Off”, Kim uses his comments and Timbaland’s beat to create more of a party atmosphere. It seems like Cheeks is just hanging out, having a good time, dancing with her and listening to her rhyme. It’s an interesting audio trick that actually works really, really well. Although “Magic Stick” has a narrow and juvenile focus (I’ll give you a hint: It’s about the penis), 50 Cent and Kim have a lot of natural chemistry that works to get the best out of both of them. Missy Elliot shows up on “When Kim Say (Can You Hear Me Now)”, and does her normal nice job of adding a few lines and a hook, allowing me not to be frustrated with her appearance. Finally, Styles P is the guest on “Get in Touch with Us” and lends a nice verse with a couple of laughs. I don’t think that Kim’s talent (or lack thereof, as you might perceive) is the reason she works better on group tracks, instead, I think it’s that she’s easy to work with and actually has a better time collaborating in the studio than working by herself. This is what makes her album supremely unique, and one of the few cases I advocate so many guest stars on an album.
I love the word “classic,” as you may have noticed. I like to judge albums on whether or not they will hold up over time, and where in the hip-hop pantheon they fit. To me, an album with 10 good songs is useless if I get sick of those tracks quickly. I’d rather have an album with 10 songs that I continue to enjoy. This is where Kim’s album falters a little bit. I enjoy about eight songs on this album, but they’re tracks I only feel like listening to from time to time. I can’t see myself constantly having this album in my disc changer. For one, “Warning”—featuring an R. Kelly sample—takes his track “A Woman’s Threat” and uses her own lyrics, trying to paint Kim as a feminist and a strong female role model. I’m not one to judge artist’s personal life, but it seems hypocritical for someone who was a mistress to a star just to get famous and then had repeated plastic surgeries to say she is a role model for young women. As much as I like this album, I can’t listen to this track. In addition, “Came Back for You” is a generic “thug-love” song that doesn’t fit Kim’s image and character and “This is Who I Am” has a muddy, generic beat by Swizz Beats...and then a horrible rhyme by him, too. Can we get this guy out of here, please?
Overall, Kim has improved a lot and this is a far cry from her disappointing Notorious K.I.M days. It’s not quite mainstream, it’s more of a semi-underground album with mainstream sensibilities. Props have to be given to her for effort and execution: La Bella Mafia is one of the top hip-hop albums of 2003, so far.
Reviewed by: Brett Berliner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01