In the summer of 1997, hip-hop was moving through two of the biggest tragedies it had ever experienced. The previous September, Tupac Shakur had been tragically gunned down amid wax-turned-real life violence; a few months later the same thing happened to his friend-turned-rival, Christopher "The Notorious B.I.G." Wallace. But in the sweltering summer months that followed, Biggie kept running this rap shit. Posthumous Billboard dominance wasn't anything new at that point, but Biggie's success in the afterlife had added significance, as it helped continue to usher hip-hop into the mainstream and cement the genre's place in society at large.
Biggie's legacy was huge enough to immediately send a number of songs flying up the charts—most notably the tribute track "I'll Be Missing You" but perhaps none more importantly than the crown jewel of Puff Daddy's Bad Boy empire, "It's All About The Benjamins," in its remix form. (For those who may not know, the original version was released in 1996 via DJ Clue's Holiday Holdup mixtape and only featured Puffy, Jadakiss, and Sheek Louch.) Biggie closes the track like the larger-than-life, attention-commanding rapper that he always was. The beat changes as soon as he grabs the mic and talks about getting owned by alcohol, listening to Redman and Naughty By Nature, and just running shit like a mob boss. His wordplay is epic, as are his delivery and rhyme schemes.
But for all his undeniable talents and swagger, for all the importance he is deservedly accorded, it's my opinion that he is actually the runner-up on the track. The best verse on "It's All About The Benjamins" belongs to Lil' Kim, who was enjoying the highest peak of her career to that time yet also going through one of the most difficult periods of her life. Her singles "Not Tonight" and "Crush On You (feat. Lil' Cease)" were certified hits, helping to propel her debut album, Hard Core, toward platinum status several weeks prior. But she was also being singled out by political conservatives for releasing what they saw as "filth," as reported by MTV back in '97. Well known for deriding rap music by Kim and her peers, C. Delores Tucker (famously called out by 2pac on "How Do U Want It?") "said that Kim's lyrics have contributed to the 'moral corruption' of black men and women," (per The New York Times).
Beyond that, of course, Kim was also coping with the devastating loss of Christopher Wallace, one of her closest friends, her on-and-off lover, and her trusted collaborator. As an equally eye-opening and heartbreaking look into the pain that the then-22-year-old was experiencing then, read this bit from a People profile on Kim from July 14, 1997:
After Biggie, 24, was killed in a drive-by shooting last March in Los Angeles, Kim moved into his Teaneck, N.J., two-story condo, where she follows a daily ritual that she says keeps her in touch with her fallen lover. After tumbling out of bed, she walks to the living room, picks up the mahogany box that contains half of Biggie's cremated remains (his estranged wife, Faith Evans, keeps the other half), and gently kisses the polished wood. "I don't do anything before I do that," says Kim, 22. "Saying hello to him gives me the power to face the day."
Later on, there are some particularly revealing bits after Kim is asked about the rather violent messages in her lyrics. As she told People, it's that brand of lyricism that "made us our money" and that their "fans wanted to hear." She added that she, Biggie, and others in her Bad Boy circle were "just telling it like it is" and that it will "take time before we all start rapping about flowers." It's that "telling it like it is" feeling that makes her "It's All About The Benjamins" verse so goddamn amazing and—let's be real here—incredibly colorful.
Her last two bars are so punishing, so filthy that you'll basically have no idea what the hell she's saying if you hear this song on the radio.
Her delivery is clear and aggressive, a direct series of punches to every part of your body before she lands a finishing uppercut so brutal that you have to seek out the album version to truly understand it. As anyone who's heard the track on the radio in 2017 can attest—and yes, it still gets plenty of airtime on certain (a.k.a. the best) stations—it is heavily censored, especially when the mic is passed to Kim. Her verse is a nonstop barrage of profane tough talk that blends hardcore bully rap and horror-movie imagery. Right out of the gate, she throws a fucking "hex" on her adversary's family, embodying a witch decked out in all-black garb ("dressed in all black like The Omen) and ready to kill ("got your friends singin', 'This is for my homie'").
And it only gets better from there. While the preceding verses from Puff Daddy, Jadakiss, and Sheek Louch were relaxed bravado, started-from-the-bottom fire, and drug-czar badassery—in that order—Kim goes ballistic and threatens to make someone deep throat her German Ruger. She also completely owns what's typically a male insult ("Suck a dick"), flaunts her platinum-coated womb (!), and makes another slick reference to her arsenal ("stash .380s in Mercedes"). Oh, and lest I forget: There's also the Angela Lansbury hat tip ("If it's murder you know she wrote it").
But the kicker? The kicker! Her last two bars are so punishing, so filthy that you'll basically have no idea what the hell she's saying if you hear this song on the radio. To be sure, Biggie's verse is pretty damn dirty in its own right—the line about liquor kicking him in the asshole? *shudder*—but Kim's final bars are, just, look at this: "Only female in my crew and I kick shit / Like a nigga do, pull the trigger too, fuck you!"
Basically, you hear her proclaim her existence as the only female in Puffy's family, and it's a wrap for the censored version (before B.I.G. takes over). What's more significant than the profanity is Kim's complete ownership and don't-give-a-fuck attitude. She recognizes that she may be the only woman among a bunch of dudes, but she holds her own—and then some. And listening to her verse repeatedly, I began to understand what exactly that meant.
I've always gravitated toward Kim's verse not only because of its imagery but because it offered something so different. Admittedly, my rap listening habits weren't necessarily refined when the song came out—I was 12, so give me a break—but Lil' Kim changed my life for the better when I saw her with Puff Daddy, Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, and the spirit of Biggie Smalls on that TV screen, rapping one after the next through Hype Williams's lens. Growing up in a bit of a male-centric household and not really having much an outlet for understanding women, my perception was always unfortunately skewed. I was your typical male dickhead preteen (sorry, Mom, but I was), and I didn't comprehend what it meant to respect women.
I'm not saying that Kim's verse on "It's All About The Benjamins" smacked me upside the head with some understanding I didn't have before. That would be hyperbolic nonsense. But it was absolutely a step in the right direction in understanding that women can be just as tough, badass, and authoritative as anyone else. And I'd be lying if I said I don't get chills every time I hear her rap, "What the blood clot? / Wanna bumble with the bee, huh? Bzzz, throw a hex on your whole family."