A Whole Lotta Lil' Kim

BEING A HIP-HOP DIVA HAS some non-negotiable requirements. You gotta rock the ice (i.e., sport diamonds), you gotta wear the designers (Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci) and, most important, you gotta have the hair. Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige won't leave the house in less than impeccable diva form, and on this hot Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, they're here to support their girl, Lil' Kim, by appearing in Kim's new video, "No Matter What They Say." In their frostily air-conditioned trailer, they're playing Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall," downing banana schnapps and laughing like schoolgirls at a dance as they await the arrival of another partner in crime, Toni Braxton, who's running late and calling constantly to find out who'll be doing her hair and makeup.

Still, even with so much diva-tude in the room, no one outshines the Queen Bee. Lil' Kim strolls in wearing her favorite outfit--next to nothing--and the brown-girl fest is in full effect: hugs, kisses, admiring glances at new outfits, nail colors and weight loss. They discuss canceling flights and appointments to ensure the party goes on all night. On the set, Missy and Mary yell "We love you, Kim!" in unison as they watch her, in see-through body stocking and five-inch stilettos, dancing seductively into the camera and spitting such lines as "So why you hating on me and my crew?/Hell, I guess if I was you I'd hate me too."

This steely, rapid-fire delivery helped Lil' Kim sell more than a million copies of her first solo album, the 1996 "Hardcore"; combined with the graphic lyrics, blond hair, blue contacts, breast implants and that MTV Awards outfit with the single pasty, it's landed her on the pages of every fashion, gossip and music magazine. She's transcended the male-dominated world of rap to become one of America's sassiest, most engaging icons; Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley calls her "the black Madonna." And her second album, "Notorious K.I.M.," released next week, should re-establish her as the undisputed First Lady of rap. Such followers as Foxy Brown have tried to bite Kim's style, but no one has the passion and pizzazz of the Queen Bee from Brooklyn.

But the Lil' Kim you meet offstage speaks in a soft, tiny, unrecognizable voice--still the voice of Kimberly Jones, the little black girl with doe eyes and kinky hair, the deeply hurt little girl from Brooklyn. Even before her parents divorced, when she was 8, she suffered her father's disapproval. "It was like I could do nothing right," she says. "Everything about me was wrong--my hair, my clothes, just me." After the divorce, she tried to stay with her mother, but money was tight and her father won custody. "I always knew my child would be somebody," Kim's mother, Ruby Jones, recalls. "She'd always be the one in her class who looked the most like nobody else. Her father never understood, and that hurt her."

At 14, Kimberly left home and fell into the glamorous, dangerous world of drug dealers and pimps. "I did what it took to survive," Kim says now. "I ran errands for drug dealers, lived with them--whatever it took to make ends meet." The men she met seemed to have a special radar for damaged souls. "All my life men have told me I wasn't pretty enough--even the men I was dating. And I'd be like, 'Well, why are you with me, then?' " She winces. "It's always been men putting me down just like my dad. To this day when someone says I'm cute, I can't see it. I don't see it no matter what anybody says."

But one man saw something in Kimberly Jones: Christopher (Biggie Smalls) Wallace, an overweight, clever and charismatic small-time drug dealer about to reinvent himself as the Notorious B.I.G., the rapper's rapper and a hip-hop superstar. They met by chance--"He was like, 'You're too cute to be able to rap' "--and Wallace asked her to do an impromptu freestyle rap right there on the street corner. "He was sold," Kim says. And soon she and Biggie were an item, even though he later married singer Faith Evans. After Biggie made his deal with Bad Boy Records, she began recording with his Junior M.A.F.I.A. posse, and transforming herself from girl in the 'hood into blue-eyed blonde.

So what was up with that? According to Kim, just what you'd think. "I have low self-esteem and I always have," she says. "Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, 'How I can I compete with that?' Being a regular black girl wasn't good enough." And the implants? "That surgery was the most pain I've ever been in in my life," says Kim. "But people made such a big deal about it. White women get them every day. It was to make me look the way I wanted to look. It's my body."

When Wallace was shot to death in 1997, Kim believed the only man who'd ever really loved her was gone. She keeps some of his ashes in an urn at her home in New Jersey. "You'd think it would get easier with time," she says, "but it doesn't. I still think about him all the time and every day, even though I know I got to find someone else soon. I can't always be alone. But Biggie's the one who got me through making this album. He was guiding me from above."

If so, he hasn't lost his touch. "Notorious K.I.M." is a raunchy blend of hypnotic beats, hard-core lyrics and Kim's deep-throat rapping. She says she's toned down the content this time--"It can't always be about sex and trash-talking"--but since it's still Kim, it's still not for the faint of heart. "I don't listen to all of her stuff because I can't," says her mother. "My son tells what I can hear and what I can't. He censors her stuff for me." But even some of the roughest language aims at more than raunch: "Suck My D--k" turns out to be a spiky feminist anthem, imagining what would happen if women hit on men the way men hit on women. And despite her feeling of dependence on her late mentor, these days Kim seems proud of being her own woman. "I wanted people to understand that Biggie didn't write my lyrics," she says. "People always thought that with the last album. They couldn't believe that hard-core attitude came from me--this little woman." They'd better believe it now.