Brooklyn rapper Lil' Kim verified her icon status in the '90s with her role in the Notorious B.I.G.'s Junior M.A.F.I.A. collective and with her rock-solid 1996 solo debut Hard Core. Ruthless street rhymes and larger-than-life swagger made her one of the hardest female figures in the mostly male-dominated rap scene. Lil' Kim's later albums didn't always live up to the raw energy and puffed-up confidence of her earliest material, and after 2005's lackluster The Naked Truth, her musical output slowed significantly. Rap changed many times over in the 14 years between The Naked Truth and Lil' Kim's fifth proper studio album 9, and the nine songs here see one of the genre's superpowers attempting to ride those changes. At first, the trappy production and cloudy samples of "Bag" clash with Kim's dated flows, but by the hook the song and the vocalist adapt to each other somewhat. She gets similar results singing over the skeletal and bass-driven R&B instrumental of "Too Bad" and hissing slightly off-rhythm rhymes on the minimal "Auto Blanco." In one sense, it's exciting to see a veteran rapper leaning into new styles rather than just throwing it back to the time they were on top. For the most part, however, Lil Kim sounds awkward and less than inspired trying to fit herself into these trendy instrumentals. There are hints of the Queen Bee spark that she made her stand out in the slow bounce of "Go Awff." The pop fun and raunchy lyrics that defined some her best early songs are reactivated on "Found You," a vulgar sex anthem that finds Kim trading sexually explicit rhymes with City Girls and O.T. Genasis over a reinterpretation of Bubba Sparxxx's 2005 hit "Ms. New Booty." While 9 has its moments, Lil' Kim sounds overly preoccupied with overhauling her sound and loses touch with the audacious boldness that defined her best work. She paved the way for Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and an entire generation of talent with her commanding presence and crass lyrical smarts. Her importance is unquestionable, but that very excellence set the bar high for her own work, as well. 9 largely falls short of the potential a legend like Lil' Kim is capable of.
by Fred Thomas