FACE OFF: Lil Kim vs. Sinéad O'Connor

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Lil’ Kim

Kimberly Denise Jones was born on 11 July, 1975 in the heart of hip hop, New York City. Her four-foot eleven-inch frame earned her the nickname Lil’ Kim on the streets. She lived with her elder brother Christopher and their mother until she was nine years old, when her father, Linwood Jones, was granted custody of both children. Lil’ Kim found it difficult to comply with her father’s strict home discipline and so she left home and spent her early teenage years living with friends and learning the uncompromising codes of the streets.

It wasn’t long before Kim’s rhyming skills caught the ear of rap legend Biggie Smalls, who took her under his wing and became her mentor. He cast her alongside other young rappers who made up the rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A. The group’s debut single, Player’s Anthem, was an instant hit and Kim’s contribution to the album, Conspiracy, earned her much respect in the hip hop world. Kim soon went solo, releasing her debut album, Hard Core, in 1996. Her sexually explicit lyrics quickly made headlines; achieving a double-platinum status only encouraged her to push the boundaries of social convention. Like many female artists, she found that sexuality shocks and, more importantly, sells.

Her personal life was to suffer a massive blow when her close friend Biggie was murdered in 1997. Following Biggie’s untimely death, Kim took a break from music, sporadically appearing on other artist’s albums until 2000, when she released her second album, The Notorious K.I.M. In 2001, she had her biggest mainstream hit when she teamed up with pop divas Christina Aguilera, Mya, and Pink to record the number one remake of La Belle’s classic hit Lady Marmalade. Her third album La Bella Mafia, released in 2003, included collaboration with rapper 50 Cent.

Throughout her career, Lil’ Kim has displayed her wealth for all to see, but with few exceptions; this seems to go hand in hand with being a rap artist. Kim has been known to cut up $100 bills and have them mixed into her nail polish. Many have described this feat, in a society where there is such need and despair, as a self-indulgent, materialistic act. Lil’ Kim, however, seems to convey this as a method of ‘keepin' it real,’ showing the world that money has not corrupted her as she shows a nonchalant attitude towards it. Yet, the message could be interpreted as quite the opposite: an arrogant and conceited gesture, a blatant betrayal to those whose basic needs are not met and who struggle to make ends meet.

Given her background, Lil’ Kim may be expected to be empathetic toward fans who cannot afford to purchase her albums from the stores and download them instead. Nevertheless, she shows little comprehension in regards to illegal file sharing, stating: “It's ridiculous. It's really not fair. It's stealing.” Others argue that if artists like Kim did more to help out the communities from whence they came, instead of personifying the ‘I, me, mine’ philosophy, then the public could all afford to buy their albums from stores.

Lil’ Kim has undergone a great deal of plastic surgery, radically changing her appearance with a nose job, lip jobs, breast surgery, and skin lightening, amongst other modifications. She justified the surgery by commenting that the changes “enhance” her and that the nose job makes her “more fun.” But more fun for whom? Enhance her body parts for whose pleasure? Does Lil’ Kim really believe that it’s “just fun”? Or has she fallen victim to the travesty of belief that in order to improve one’s looks, black celebrities have to look more like white people? Despite her claims that these surgical alterations have been made for her own happiness, one cannot help but wonder: is Lil’ Kim merely another product of a society in which thick noses and curly hair are viewed as ugly? Has Lil’ Kim fallen, hook line and sinker, into the trap of the Caucasian standard for beauty?

Her latest album, The Naked Truth, was critically acclaimed, becoming the first album by any female artist to get “five mics” from hip hop magazine, The Source. She mixes rhymes with the likes of The Game, Snoop and late friend B.I.G. in what is widely being considered her best work to date. Shortly after the album was released, in July 2005, Lil’ Kim was fined $50,000 and sentenced to one year in prison after being found guilty of conspiracy and perjury for denying acquaintance with the perpetrator of a 2001 shooting: a man to whom she had given ‘shout-outs’ in various songs. Kim’s official release date from prison is 2 August, 2006, but due to her work for charity efforts, she hopes to be out earlier.

Sinéad O’Connor

Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor was born on 8 December, 1966. The middle child of five siblings, O’Connor was brought up in Dublin, Ireland, in a troubled household. Her parents divorced when she was eight, and she later stated that her mother regularly abused her. Consequently, O’Connor then went to live with her father but her behavior worsened. Sinead was becoming the authority-questioning rebel. At age fifteen, she was expelled from school and then arrested after being caught shoplifting. She was then sent to a reform school.

Whilst singing a cover of Barbara Streisand’s Evergreen at a wedding, she was singled out by Paul Byrne and later recorded a song for his group In Tua Nua called Take My Hand. However, she did not become a permanent member of the group because they thought she was too young at fifteen.

Her father then sent her to a boarding school where she recorded four songs, two of which would later appear on her first album. She placed an ad in a newspaper and received a response from Columb Farrelly, who helped her recruit two more members to form a band called Ton Ton Macoute. O’Connor dropped out of school to follow the group to Dublin where her singing became the group’s focal point.

In February 1985, O’Connor was devastated when her mother died in a car accident. Not long after, she left the band to pursue her single career in London. After signing for Ensign Records in 1985 and contributing to the soundtrack of the film The Captive, she recorded her acclaimed debut album entitled The Lion and the Cobra. Following the success of the album, O’Connor’s outspoken political beliefs often raised eyebrows, particularly when she publicly defended the IRA.

In the next ten years, O’Connor released six albums, her most successful single being Nothing Compares 2 U. The song, written by Prince, dominated the charts and was number one for eleven weeks in Ireland.

O’Connor’s musical career has been littered with controversy. In 1990, she threatened to withdraw her appearance at the Garden State Arts Center if the American national anthem was played beforehand. The organizers agreed not to play the anthem, but after the show, she was permanently banned from ever performing there again. She explained her decision by proclaiming: “I will not go on stage after the national anthem of a country which imposes censorship on artists. It's hypocritical and racist.” O’Connor was severely criticized for her comments and her songs were banned from various radio stations in response. She was to receive even greater condemnation following her appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992. She performed a version of Bob Marley’s War and added a lyric about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. She then held up a picture of Pope John Paul II to the camera and ripped it up, saying, “Fight the real enemy.” She has also added her voice to those of many artists by condemning the war in Iraq.

Reports have suggested that O’Connor suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. In 2002, O’Connor announced her retirement from music but it did not last long. After spending some time in Jamaica during 2004, she released the reggae album Throw Down Your Arms in 2005. O’Connor challenges the notion that female artists can only find success by succumbing to the demands of the male sexual appetite. Her beauty does not comply with the traditional western ideals; it is a beauty from within which emanates from her performances and poignant voice. By shaving her head, she challenges the stereotypical erotic and voluptuous image that many female artists have adopted: she is seen not as a sexual object, but as a respected, serious, talented artist: a rare exception in the world of mainstream entertainment.

By Sean Mendez

1st March 2006