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Why I’m Not Sure Yet If Lil Mama’s Really Good (but I think she might be)

Hey, this is Brandon. Due to my recent posting inconsistencies, some friends are picking up the slack for me.

Despite being sort of a pseudo-feminist and also a listener of rap, I’ve never really gotten into any female rappers. They’ve simply seemed pretty uninteresting. Lil Kim seems to wear these alternately hyper-masculine or hyper-sexualized roles that sort of make me uncomfortable; Queen Latifah gave up rapping for acting and jazz long before I was interested and when she did rap it was boring; Missy Elliot does this sort of weird party/dance rap that’s not even all that fun and just really isn’t that good.

All of this is why I was pretty surprised to find that I really like Lil Mama. The first thing that struck me, especially when compared to Lil Kim and Queen Latifah, is that the fact that she’s female is pretty secondary to everything else she raps about. Her songs are far more directly informed by her young age than by her gender, which is much more interesting, in no small part because it’s much more universal. I get why Lil Kim and Queen Latifah had to define themselves in the world of rap as women for them to get noticed, but it’s kind of cheap to do it now, if that’s not too post-feminist of me to assert. The problem here is that Lil Mama is just as much limiting herself in defining herself as a young rapper—if she even makes it that long, will she still be writing songs about high school when she’s 25? In its own way, being the voice of a generation is just as pointless and meaningless as being the voice of women.

She makes Avril Lavigne’s ‘Girlfriend’ (a song I’m sort of obsessed with) almost listenable. Although she’s about five years younger than Avril Lavigne, Lil Mama’s presence seems to make the song (although not so much the video) much less juvenile. Which is interesting, because you’d expect a 17-year-old girl who raps about lip gloss to make a song consisting of cheer-style choruses about not liking some poor guy’s girlfriend, not a 22-year-old who (I found out in reading her Wikipedia page to write this) is married to the guy from Sum-41. This kind of oddly age-inappropriate niche is what’s going to happen with Lil Mama if she doesn’t stop with this “voice of the young people” business.

Her apparently standard way of starting remixes, which is to repeat “Remix” and “Lil Mama” at an appropriate tempo for 10 seconds or so before the song really gets going, is definitely kind of annoying. She’s not as affecting as some other rappers I love, but that doesn’t seem to mean that she can’t be affecting: the last verse of her remix of ‘Umbrella’ is legitimately touching. It would be condescending to say that it’s a touching description of a teenage relationship: her contribution to ‘Umbrella’ connects this really kind of nonsensical metaphor with a very matter-of-fact and moving statement of what a relationship is like in what is really a pretty universal and even adult way when she says, “and if you feel a lil drizzle you won’t melt–it’s just that you buckle your seatbelt, it’s a tough ride and when we temporarily park you better look out your window cause them haters coming down outside.”

‘Lip Gloss’ doesn’t compare as favorably. I definitely really like this song, but it’s especially interesting because of this incongruously serious tone in her voice almost the entire song that completely belies the overall tone of the song, not really because of her content. When she raps “what you know bout me” I don’t get any sense of a petulant attitude even though it’s repeated in the middle of a song explicitly about high school—it’s certainly no more ridiculous than T.I. asking “what you know about that,” anyway. I’m not really sure if it means much of anything in context since it suggests that she’s proving herself, which kind of contradicts the rest of the song’s point about how great she and her lip gloss just are despite the haters, but somehow while it’s happening it’s really good. Ultimately, though, she doesn’t say a whole lot in any of these songs, and when she’s really good, it’s pretty momentary.

It wasn’t until I found her remix of ‘Show Me What You Got’ that I really figured out what it is that I like about her. Her attitude reminds me of Jay-Z: she invokes this similar feeling of jubilance and excitement even when she’s not saying much, which is (I think) Jay’s greatest strength. Her vocal tone is really similar to his in that she has this not-very-feminine, not-remarkably-pleasant voice that seems anyway to be totally unaffected. Jay sometimes seems like he’s not that invested in the song, and it’s his charisma that really carries things along; I think a similar thing happens with Lil Mama. In this incredibly cheap and awesome video for ‘Show Me What You Got’, she even adopts some of Jay-Z’s mannerisms and some of the weird little rhyme things you hear him do sometimes (the 4 or 5 lines in a row which end in –erd is what I’m referring to especially; this really evokes for me Jay’s lost-love verse from ‘Lost Ones’, where every line rhymes with she or her), which I is assume calculated or at least an unconscious reaction to remixing a Jay-Z song, and also is really entertaining.

Even her claim to be the “voice of the young people” seems like more of a schtick than anything else, and I do think she’s potentially a lot more than that. Out of the three real videos I’ve been able to find of hers, the two that seem intended for anyone to see (‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Lip Gloss’) have a much more adolescent appearance than the third, which seems like a marginally fancier version of something my friends might make. The videos even have a much more adolescent tone than the songs themselves: ‘Lip Gloss’ is pretty sympathetic to the teacher who’s out of lip gloss until you see Lil Mama roll her eyes at her in the video. The whole enterprise of collaborating with Avril Lavigne also seems designed toward this end. Ultimately, I understand why she’s sort of straddling this pop/rap line and apparently marketing herself to teenagers and younger, but I’m really hopeful that when her album comes out it’s as good as I think it could be.

Written by Meghann

June 24th, 2007 at 4:51 am