Facing The Music

A few days before she was scheduled to start serving her prison sentence, Kimberly Jones--you know her as Lil' Kim--was ensconced on a plush sofa in a dimly lit recording studio in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. Her mind was somewhere else. As the friends and associates around her laughed and chattered about Michael Vick's speed on the football field and shopping on eBay, the Queen Bee, as they call her, sat silently, apparently in a world of her own--until one friend announced he was leaving to get a bite to eat, and she snapped back into focus. Where was he going? When would he be back? For the rapper known for her bold and raunchy lyrics (and a fashion sense to match), it was a revealingly vulnerable moment. Time was running out on her--were all her friends running out, too?

Back in March, Jones, now 30, was convicted of lying to a federal grand jury about a gun battle outside a New York City radio station; she was acquitted of obstructing justice. She was sentenced in July, and this week she's finally scheduled to make the trip to begin a 366-day term at an undisclosed East Coast women's prison (though with good behavior she could be out in 90 days). During the intervening time, the performer who'd been the face of female rap in the mid-'90s toned down her outrageous image--pasties, blond wigs, blue contacts and bling. At last month's Video Music Awards, she wore a demure silk wrap dress with a minimum of exposed skin. "I styled myself for that, and nobody helped," she says. "I've never really been in control of my image until the last few months. Some of that stuff I wore was just one part of me."

Except for that appearance, Jones devoted almost every waking minute either to her mother (who's sometimes cringed at her lyrics and wardrobe) and younger brother--"Not to be able to see them when I want and need to is going to be real tough for me"--or to her new album. Edmonds Entertainment (owned by Babyface and his wife) has been following her around, filming her last weeks of freedom for a possible reality show. (So far, no takers at the networks.) When she spoke with NEWSWEEK, she was planning to spend the weekend of freedom shooting videos and having a last Sunday dinner with relatives and record executives. Some of Jones's hyperactivity might have been an attempt to distract herself. As Atlantic Records president Julie Greenwald says, "It was therapy, and her way of staying positive." But most of it was simply an effort to ensure that when she got out she'd still have a family and a career.

One song on Jones's new record predictably name-checks Martha Stewart, but the Queen Bee and the Diva of Domesticity don't really have that much in common besides criminal records and intermittent blondness. "I admire Martha, but that's all I can say," says Jones. "Our situations are totally different. One paper said I mentioned how she lost weight in prison and that was good. I'd never say anything that stupid--like that made it worth it." (She must mean the New York Daily News, which quoted her last week as saying Stewart "came out looking better than when she went in.") Stewart left prison with a higher profile, two new TV shows and, in many quarters, sympathy as a multimillionaire martyr. Jones has better sense than to count on anything like that. In fact, she has no idea what to expect when she finishes doing her time, so in the months before prison she became, as she puts it, "a workaholic zombie" in the studio. "It's been nonstop since the day I found out," says Jones, in a voice incongruously like that of a shy 9-year-old. "I knew when the verdict came down, and then the sentencing, that I didn't have any time to play around. I had to get the album done, and all the other things in my life settled quickly. I'd never done an album so fast before, and in a way it was a good thing. The music just kind of rolled out."

There's nothing demure about that album. "The Naked Truth," in stores Sept. 27, is hard-core New York rap: spine-jolting beats (with a tinge of reggae) and the harshest dis lyrics anybody's recorded in years. Suffice it to say that neither 50 Cent (his offense: criticizing her extensive plastic surgery) nor Star Jones (her offense: probably just being annoying) will be at Kim's welcome-home party. But Kim saved her angriest diatribes for the former members of her posse who she feels sold her out during her trial--"dropping dimes like Sprint." "On my other albums, I never got personal like I did on this one," she says. "I wasn't ready before now to break my life down for real. But this time around, things needed to be said. It all came from the heart. I wanted people to understand me and see me for who I am." Mission accomplished.

The story behind "The Naked Truth" goes back to the day in 2001 when Jones and her crew, Junior Mafia--which once rolled with her late mentor and lover, the Notorious B.I.G. crossed paths at the Manhattan radio station Hot 97 with the rival Capone N' Noreaga. The two groups had words over Capone's song "Bang, Bang," which featured Foxy Brown dissing Kim. Soon more than 20 rounds had been fired from at least six guns, and one of the Capone posse members had been shot in the leg. In 2003, Jones testified to a grand jury that she didn't remember her friend and bodyguard Damion Butler's being at the scene. Unfortunately for Jones, the station's surveillance videos showed Butler opening a door for her, and--even more damaging--the two standing next to each other when Butler pulled out a gun and fired.

Other members of Junior Mafia, most notably James Lloyd, testified that Jones's account was inaccurate. (He would have been vulnerable to a charge of perjury himself if he hadn't, but on "The Naked Truth," she calls him a "pussy" who "took the D.A.'s side.") U.S. District Judge Gerard Lynch, a dab hand at dissing, too, called Jones's testimony "an insult to the system." "What happened to me wasn't fair," the rapper insists of her sentence. "And a lot of people let me down. A lot of people I thought were my friends turned on me--but I'm still blessed. I've never been the person to turn on my friends. That's just not who I am."

If Jones is a no-snitching hard-liner, that's the ethic she grew up with. Raised in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, she was the product of a broken home and a disapproving father. She left home at 14 and fell into the world of pimps and gangbangers. It was while running an errand for a drug dealer that she met B.I.G. He was married to Faith Evans, but he became her lover and mentor. After his murder in 1997, presumably at the hands of rival rappers, she placed an urn with his ashes in her Englewood, N.J., home. She still has an altar there in his memory, and insists he still guides her every move.

Which isn't to say she's without support among the living--not only those friends surrounding her in the studio, but such admirers as fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who mounted the "Marc Jacobs Loves Lil' Kim" campaign with T shirts and billboards in New York and L.A. "She's one of the most creative--and sweetest--people I've ever met," Jacobs says. "I truly do love her, as a person and an icon." She'll need all the love she can get in the coming months, and probably long afterward. "I had a lot of offers for movies and television before this all happened," she says, "and all I can pray for is that they will still be there when this is over. They will if it's meant to be." Meanwhile, she'll pass some of the time in prison writing her autobiography. No rhymes, beats or samples, but if "The Naked Truth" is any indication, there's bound to be some scratching. Her ex-friends can't say they weren't warned.