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Live: Lil Kim good, not quite great at Key Club

June 14, 2012 |  5:51 pm

The hip-hop diva's ambitious if erratic show was almost too much for the compact confines of Key Club.

Live: Lil Kim driven to give till it hurts

“I love all my female rappers, and I’ll represent for them forever,” proclaimed Lil Kim midway through her set at a jam-packed Key Club on Wednesday night. The diminutive hip-hop diva had just performed “Ladies Night (Not Tonight Remix),” complete with a surprise appearance by ’90s rapper Da Brat. Later, she brought former Death Row artist Lady of Rage on stage.

Her message of solidarity and guests of choice made a pointed statement in light of Kim’s ongoing beef with Nicki Minaj (more on that later), but Kim has always repped for women. Though the start of her career in the early 1990s saw her playing the moll in the otherwise male Brooklyn rap outfit Junior M.A.F.I.A, and the professional and romantic cohort to the late Notorious B.I.G, she’s also collaborated with the likes of Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and, of course, the women with whom she remade Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” — Christina Aguilera, Pink and Mya.

Minaj was never mentioned by name (a real queen doesn't even deign to give a rival that basic acknowledgment), and it wasn’t necessary to do so. The amped crowd sang word for word near the show’s end when Kim finally performed a scalding version of “Black Friday,” her Nicki diss.

But Kim’s defense of her queendom wasn’t limited to throwing darts at Minaj. In fact, she most effectively made her point the old-fashioned way: She put on a good — not quite great — show that proved she has no intention of quietly abdicating her throne.

Rolling out hit after hit, including those in which she dropped track-stealing cameos — “How Many Licks,” “Whoa,” “Big Momma Thang,” “Magic Stick,” “All About the Benjamins,” “Money, Power, Respect,” “Lighters Up,” “Crush on You,” and more — Kim put on a concert that was too big in both concept and ambition for the small Key Club stage. Though there was a massive drum kit and a keyboard onstage, most of the backing music was clearly prerecorded. The Janet Jackson-style choreography was executed by a small army of dancers who were clearly cramped by the confined space.

Matters weren’t helped by the presence of four videographers camped right onstage (Kim’s tour is being filmed for a documentary) as well as several still photographers who at times positioned themselves center stage for a shot. Then there was the oldest hip-hop cliché in the book — lots of hangers-on just milling in the background and on the sidelines of the stage.

The show opened with a quartet of the male dancers waving massive Lil Kim flags while dressed in bicep-revealing paramilitary gear, coming off like a fusion of Public Enemy’s SW1 and Chippendale dancers, before Kim stepped out to rapturous applause. She soaked up the crowd’s vocal adoration with a beatific smile, blowing kisses and very, very slowly spreading her arms wide, Diana Ross style. (It was a means of acknowledgment that she repeated throughout the night, leading one concertgoer to ask, “Is she channeling Evita?”)

That mannered opening might have given you pause, only Kim followed it with ferocious, foot-stomping energy. She served the crowd several glittery costume changes, but few of the skimpy get-ups were really flattering to her now fuller body. None of that mattered, though, because her voice was strong and biting and in a take-no-prisoners mode. It was full of the aggressive sexuality that is her trademark, but that toughness would be followed by an almost coquettish softness. “I got that same phone, baby,” she grinned to a fan who was filming the show from a side seat. “I got that same color too!”

For all the ribald, raunchy lyrics she drops (and every song was a singalong for the crowd,) the thing that really girds Kim’s voice and persona is a genuine sweetness that humanizes a steely persona. When Kim repeatedly tells the crowd how much she loves and needs them, yes, it’s boilerplate performer shtick, but it also resonates sincerity in her case.

Still, the show was marred by lulls in energy from ill-advised, poorly paced intermissions (during one of which, Somaya Reece, from the reality show “Love & Hip Hop” performed an interminable mini-set), and it’s unclear how plugged in to her own campiness Lil Kim is.

Against a looped instrumental of “Billie Jean,” she gave a tribute to Michael Jackson that included donning a sparkling sequined jacket and a lone sequined glove before she and her dancers worked through some of the late icon’s most famous dance moves. It was wonderfully Charo-in-Vegas, but you had to wonder how aware Kim was of the cheesiness of the bit.

What gave the show an accidental poignancy, though, was Kim’s physicality. Much has been written about her altered looks – from reported surgeries, skin lightening and bad weaves — and a lot of it has been lazily cruel. But listening to her songs of empowerment (largely through sexual prowess and the accruement of capital) raised the question of how empowered she really is.

Kim is absolutely lovable, but you wonder if she’s the last to know it.

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-- Ernest Hardy

Photo credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times 

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