Lil' Kim Thinks B.I.G.

When poor people say "money isn't everything," it's easy to write off the sentiment as jealousy. When wealthy people say it, it's natural to sense insincerity. But, surprisingly, when that statement streams from the lips of hip-hop's most amplified soldier of seduction, Lil' Kim, it resonates with warmth and frankness.

With the success of her solo debut album, Hard Core, still echoing, her respect as the Family's "Big Mama" flourishing, and her second stint on Puff Daddy's star-studded "No Way Out" tour having commenced this week, Lil' Kim has more on her mind than the average rap diva. She's never one to hold back her feelings -- as the sexually charged lyrics on her hard-hitting tracks illustrate so well -- so when she talks about the effect that the Notorious B.I.G.'s (a k a Biggie Smalls) death has had on her and the rest of the Family's hip-hop survivors, it is far from a superficial display.

"Financially, we may be making ends meet, but spiritually we're strugglin' as we cope with hip-hop's biggest loss," says Kim, her voice urgent. "It's a year after Biggie's death, and it's not getting any easier to let go."

Kim, dressed in a tight-fitting black leather top and matching pants that contrast sharply with her dyed-blonde curls, is sitting with a glass of champagne in a backstage section of a New York club where multi-platinum Bad Boy sensation Mase is performing. She generates an unmistakable aura of hard-won refinement in the midst of the blunt smoke that surrounds her. "Money isn't everything, especially when you're without someone you love," she says, reaching for another glass of champagne. Before taking her first sip, she instinctively pours a sip-sized drop of her drink onto the floor -- a silent shout-out to the late hip-hop prince.

"He was such a sweetheart and very mellow in public and even in private," reflects Kim, "but on his records he took no prisoners. His flows would get so hard sometimes. It was like you felt the inevitable urge to release adrenaline. That was one of his biggest attributes, and people have said that it was rubbing off on me as well."

It shouldn't be a surprise that Lil' Kim takes Smalls' death to heart. Biggie's presence certainly helped enlarge Lil' Kim's platinum-selling debut, perhaps the most charged lyrical cruise through hip-hop's sexual politics since 2 Live Crew's As Nasty As They Wanna Be. But Hardcore is not cheesy; it's packed with sweat-inducing beats and laced with Lil' Kim's characteristic riffs on sexual freedom. "Drugs," which she calls her favorite track (mostly because she recorded it with Biggie), pays homage to R&B, led along by her heart-thumpingly sexy rhymes. "[Biggie and I] decided to name the song 'Drugs,' because we felt that the overall groove of the album provided a high."

The track is just one piece of ammunition Kim has stuffed under her belt, along with a tight list of credentials (1997 Soul Train Lady of Soul Award, 1998 Grammy nomination, 1998 Soul Train Nomination, etc.). The successful rapper breezily notes that "Biggie easily accounts for 85 percent of my career." She's not the only one. One look at his surviving crew brings to mind his undeniable impact: five-plus albums, multimillion sales, chart-topping albums and singles .... One year later, Biggie is as forgotten as Jesus.

So how does Lil' Kim feel when she hears her mentor's music on the radio? "Well, when I do hear his music now," she says, "I'm still very proud to have seen his rise to the top of the hip-hop spectrum, as well as to have had him in my life as such a positive influence; (pause) but how can I not wonder how large he ultimately could have been. That bothers me more than anything.

"Puffy said it best in one of his tracks ... in the tribute he dedicated titled 'I'll Be Missing You,' he said 'they didn't get to hear half your breath/ I know you're still livin' your life after death.' That is probably the truest statement about his career.

"It's like ... every word is so f---in' true. Biggie had so much in him, that it could have taken three lifetimes for it to all come out. But we're continuing his life for him, so he's livin' it through us."

Lil' Kim is living it, and she's living large -- something she never dreamed would happen. She explains, "Biggie was my friend, and he promised me that after he got his album started, he would come back and put me on," she says. "That's a sign of a true friend. He kept his promise to me, and it's something I will never forget as long as I live."