The late 1990s were the apex years of hip-hop. Music labels were spending millions on videos, world tours, and promotional merchandise to proliferate the decadent image of hip-hop artists and their lifestyles. At the time, one of the most talked about rappers was The Notorious B.I.G., a charismatic young talent from Brooklyn whose smooth lyricism, rough past as a drug dealer, and tight crew of MCs known as Junior Mafia projected him to fame. One member of his crew that stood out in particular was Lil’ Kim, a 4’11” beauty who could hang with the boys, own her sexuality, and embody the ride-or-die woman that men idealized. She was cunning with her wordplay, unapologetically erotic, and extremely confident—she became an instant star.
Before Kylie Jenner built an empire on her lip liner look and the Kardashian clan made brightly colored wigs their thing, before Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj one-upped each other into far-out fashion oblivion, before Cardi B was getting more attention in the front row than everything coming down the runway, and before Rihanna took over the beauty world, Lil’ Kim did it. Since her 1996 debut album Hard Core, Lil’ Kim has done all of the above and more, paving the way for all our current faves lyrically, stylistically, and entrepreneurially.
In 1996, at the age of 22, Lil' Kim dropped her debut album Hard Core, largely produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs. Singles from the album included “Crush on You,” “Not Tonight,” and “No Time,” which were sexually-charged songs about ownership, luxury goods, hot sex, and using men for money. The album itself opens with an explicit skit where a man masturbates and fantasizes to a Lil’ Kim porn, which leads directly into “Big Momma Thing,” a song about how Kim has grown into her sexuality. “I used to be scared of the dick, now I throw lips to the shit, handle it like a real bitch,” she raps on her opening verse, setting the tone for her sexually empowered debut project.
Accompanying Kim’s lyrics were stunning visuals of extravagance—diamond necklaces, fur coats, designer shoes—facilitated with the help of fresh talents Misa Hylton on fashion styling and Eugene Davis on hair. The trio most notably worked on “Crush on You,” a vibrant video with four color motifs that became one of Kim’s most iconic music videos. The bright wigs, neon furs, and high-fashion logos are all back in a big way—and we can definitely tie it directly to the Queen B’s early days. She was even wearing round-framed sunglasses 20 years before your favorite Soundcloud rappers deemed them “clout goggles.”
Just this year, Minaj was photographed in all-over Fendi print in her "Chun Li" promos, but logo prints were a major part of Lil' Kim's '90s aesthetic. Known to to rock head-to-toe Chanel, Louis Vuitton, or Fendi, she even featured Versace and Chanel logos on a few of her brightly-colored wigs (which Beyoncé paid homage to in her series of Lil’ Kim Halloween costumes in 2017). Lil’ Kim was famously photographed nude by David Lachapelle, her body painted with Louis Vuitton logos. As logomaina creeps back into relevance with the likes of the Kardashians and the Hadids getting their monogram prints off, it’s hard not to look back at this part of the Queen B’s signature style.
Lil’ Kim’s “Crush On You” looks are amongst the most memorable and the most duplicated. Kim’s candy-coated monochrome coordination not only not only inspired Beyoncé's 2017 Halloween costume, but was also reflected in Rihanna's 2015 performance of "BBHMM." Most recently, Cardi B rocked a Lil' Kim-inspired fit on a disco dance floor in her feature for Pardison Fontaine’s song “Backin It Up” similar to that in Kim's 1997 video.
The fact that Lil’ Kim’s wildest, most iconic outfits are still being recycled is a true testament to her influence. Namely, the purple ensemble designed by stylist Misa Hylton that Kim wore to the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards—which led to us seeing Diana Ross touch her exposed boob—has inspired designers and celebs alike. French fashion house YSL sent a black leather asymmetrical dress down the runway for its Spring 2015 ready-to-wear collection and Nicki Minaj wore a similar look to the Fall/Winter 2017/2018 Haider Ackermann Womenswear show in Paris.
Entire editorials have been inspired by the Queen B’s signature style. In August 2017, CR Fashion Book debuted its 1999-themed shoot starring Kim Kardashian in a pink wig, pink bikini, pink snakeskin boots, and a pink floor-length fur based on Lil’ Kim’s look at a 1999 appearance at The Met. V Magazine shot Rihanna’s 2015 cover in a very Lil’ Kim-styled platinum blonde wig and her signature dark-lined lips. In 2015, Rihanna even pointed to the Queen as one of her major beauty and fashion inspirations saying, “There are a lot of nineties supermodels that I love and I’m inspired by—but Lil’ Kim, for me, she had so many different looks.”
Whether it’s an inspiration for a full magazine spread or music video, or a direct Halloween costume on the likes of Miley Cyrus or Beyoncé, Lil’ Kim’s sartorial influence is undeniable. The sexiness embodied in her music and style solidified her place as a cultural trailblazer who walked in countless fashion shows, praised during a VH1 Hip Hop Honors tribute, and launched her own MAC beauty line. Lil' Kim ran through the male-dominated world of '90s hip hop in sky-high heels so today's musical icons could follow in her path.