Lil' Kim

La Bella Mafia

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After a couple low-profile years where it seemed like Lil' Kim was fading away into the obscurity of rap history, she returned in 2003 with a strong effort, La Bella Mafia, that reestablished her as an industry icon. Her previous album, Notorious K.I.M. (2000), had been somewhat of a disappointment relative to her smash debut, Hard Core (1996). Where her debut had lived up to its title and presented her as a sexually charged gangstress -- the Notorious B.I.G.'s right-hand woman and the momentarily undisputed queen of New York -- her follow-up made an ill-fated bid for pop-crossover success. Overseen by Puff Daddy on the eve of his initial popular collapse, Notorious K.I.M. was a mishmash collection of collabos and overblown Biggie odes that didn't resonate well with her fans, the pop crowd, or critics. It's perhaps fitting then that on La Bella Mafia Kim returns to her sexually charged gangstress image, forgoing overt pop concessions in favor of the sort of hardcore motifs that had always been her stock-in-trade. While she plays up the gangstress image well, there's still plenty of commerciality going on here, as hitmakers like Timbaland, Scott Storch, Kayne West, and Swizz Beatz craft the beats while guests like 50 Cent, Missy Elliott, Styles P, and Twista bring some additional flavor. This results in some edgy yet radio-ready tracks like "The Jump Off," "Magic Stick," and "(When Kim Say) Can You Hear Me Now?" Elsewhere, there are some substantial album tracks that fill out the album, particularly the emotive "Heavenly Father," the slow-jamming "Can't F**k With Queen Bee," and the "Guess Who's Back"-esque "Came Back for You." As with most rap albums, La Bella Mafia could use a little trimming, but it's a relatively solid album with quite a bit of lyrical substance to accompany the first-rate beatmaking. The Queen B has a lot to say here after her long sabbatical, and she's noticeably slowed down her flow, which brings her word choices to the fore. As a result of all this, La Bella Mafia affirms Kim's briefly questionable status as a formidable female presence in a man's world and once again turns the often sexist mindset of rap on its head in the process.

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