It has become a kind of conventional wisdom that university liberal arts programs, fractured by increasingly esoteric fields of study and all the theoretical contortions they spawn, are irrelevant to the rest of American life. And yet as never-ending battles over sexual harassment and the like prove, there's a pretty direct connection between the ideas cooked up in women's studies programs and the culture at large.
For years now, the kind of thinking that resulted in all those speech codes and focus on sex in the workplace has been old news on campus. Instead, desperate to regain some of the hedonistic cachet of the '60s, hip academics have been turning their backs on rigorous, killjoy feminists like Andrea Dworkin in favor of porn stars like Nina Hartley, who tours the college lecture circuit spreading what has come to be called a sex-positive ideology. There have been porn-studies classes at University of California at Santa Cruz, UC-Berkeley, UC-Santa Barbara, Wellesley and State University of New York at New Paltz, to name just a few schools. And in 1998, the World Pornography Conference -- cosponsored by the Center for Sex Research at California State University at Northridge and the Free Speech Coalition, a porn industry trade group -- brought dozens of academics and adult film stars together for a four-day celebration of skin.
It's easy to see a direct parallel between the intellectual celebration of porn and a sexed-up hip-hop act like Lil' Kim. As a protigi of the late Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka the Notorious B.I.G., she exploded onto the scene as a part of his Brooklyn, N.Y., collective, Junior M.A.F.I.A. She achieved true celebrity soon after with the X-rated album "Hard Core," which came out in 1996, roughly at the same time as Foxy Brown's similarly gynocentric "Ill Na Na." The two albums seemed to exemplify a new era of female M.C.s who were more concerned with earning orgasms than respect. Not surprisingly, the nymphomaniac routines -- particularly Kim's scant clothing and trashy rhymes -- were magically transformed by the press into shows of feminist strength.
Kim's new album, "The Notorious K.I.M.," is her first in four years. She has spent the interim traveling as a widely toasted It Girl, selling MAC lipsticks and being celebrated in magazines from Vibe and the Source to Interview, Elle, Vogue and Newsweek. These are, of course, the same publications that have largely given a free pass to pornographic misogynists like Eminem. It's interesting that these critics use exactly the same language as the professors who give rhetorical blow jobs to gonzo porn video directors like John Stagliano. In critic-speak, Lil' Kim is often described as "empowering" or "revolutionary." Some even herald her as a mouthpiece of the "new feminism."
"She's transcended the male-dominated world of rap to become one of America's sassiest, most engaging icons," said Newsweek. "Asserting herself sexually like a hip-hop Millie Jackson, Kim's ribald accounts of healthy sexual appetite come off as empowering," crowed Time Out New York. "Kim is a revolutionary figure in the sense that she's a woman who is articulating the same perverted thoughts that men have been rhyming about for years," concurred music magazine CMJ. "In a male-dominated genre, Kimberly Jones' suck and be sucked tales -- and her no-holds-barred, straight-up raunchy (but somehow endearing) routines -- gave rap a much-needed jolt of female-fueled sexual empowerment," adds a SonicNet review of the new record. RollingStone.com was one of few outlets that demurred: "Luckily for Kim, when neither her lyrics nor her beats suffice, she can always fall back on her ass," wrote critic Neil Drumming. His review demonstrates the flip side of the press's infatuation with horny women -- the same sexual carnivorousness that the media lauds as powerful is used as a put-down once the act grows tired.
No doubt, Lil' Kim is thrillingly audacious. The chorus of "Not Tonight," from "Hard Core," included the funked-up singalong chorus "I don't want dick tonight/Eat my pussy right." You could call it the ultimate jam for the Good Vibrations set. But Kim's stardom was -- and is -- as much about timing as about attitude. She's the apotheosis of a female ideal that reached critical mass in the '90s, about the same time that universities began to see porn as a positive vehicle for female sexuality. She was a carnally voracious, fashionably outrageous diva who could match libidos with any man. Her fame coincided with the rise of the female sex columnist, with the public cult of the Hitachi magic wand, with post-"Boogie Nights" porno chic, Esquire magazine celebrating do-me feminism and Porn Star baby T-shirts mass-marketed in malls. Amid all this erotic self-congratulation, perhaps a graduate student in porn studies could argue that Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown were reclaiming or recontextualizing something like the Hottentot Venus of the early 1800s, the African woman lured to England and displayed naked as a sideshow freak because of her large breasts and butt. But this time, if there is any exploitation going on, the girls are full participants. It's a situation that precludes earnest liberal criticism. Sure, anti-rap bluestocking C. Delores Tucker complained, but no one was listening. Kim was strong and beautiful, nobody's victim.
Not being a victim, though, doesn't translate into being a heroine. In her music, if not in her much more user-friendly public persona, Lil' Kim has never been a hip-hop Mae West. Instead, like misogynist male rappers from Snoop Dogg to Eminem, the sex in Kim's music is often driven as much by hate and a desire to dominate as by lust.
That distinction between hate and lust is especially clear on Kim's scathingly angry new record. Gone are the warm, sensual, funky arrangements and piano loops of "Hard Core," replaced by ominous, gut-churning bass, car-crash electric guitars, creepily pulsing neo-electro effects and lots of mournful Latin flourishes courtesy of a host of producers including Puffy Combs, Shaft, Mario "Yellowman" Winans and Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie. The record has the sound of a battlefield, not a skin flick. Only the salacious "How Many Licks," featuring thong-fetishist Sisqo, recalls the playfully ripe side of Kim that dominated "Hard Core." On that track, she generously entices prison inmates to jerk off, imagining their tongues between her thighs, a sentiment as sweet as it is debauched.
Everywhere else on the record, it's hard to buy Kim as an avatar of autonomous female desire, which so many in the press would like her to be. Instead, the album is permeated by the malice and despair of sport fucking. She's still demanding that the boys get between her legs, still celebrating her clit and boasting about using big-dicked admirers like disposable dildos. But there's a rage toward men here, a not-fully-articulated castrating venom.
Take the call and response chorus to "Suck My D**k" (which Newsweek called "a spiky feminist anthem"). She sets it up rapping, "I treat ya'll niggers like you treatin' us, no doubt/Yo yo yo come here, so I can bust in your mouth." Then comes the first iteration of a dialogue between Kim and guest vocalist Mr. Bristal in which every line is spit out with palpable contempt:
"Yo, come 'er, bitch."
"Nigger fuck you."
"No fuck you, bitch."
"Who you talkin' to?"
"Why you actin' like a bitch?"
"'Cause ya'll niggers ain't shit. If I was a dude, I'd tell you to suck my dick."
How could anyone but a nihilist call this progress? Of course, an enormous part of the fury on the record comes in response to the 1997 murder of Biggie Smalls, Kim's mentor and lover. Indeed, that's supposed to be one of the reasons why it took her so long to make another album. The track "Revolution," which features an almost macabre vocal by Grace Jones, is a fantasy about taking revenge on Smalls' killers, while "Hold On," with Mary J. Blige, is an uncharacteristically passionate, mournful ballad commemorating him.
Nevertheless, if Kim was a sex kitten on "Hard Core," here she's a vagina dentata. That itself is potent in those rare moments when she exhibits the kind of self-awareness that her former best friend and current archrival Foxy Brown did on "My Life" (1999), a stunning, tortured song laced with despairing, suicidal asides and a sad chorus about "a black girl's ordeal." Kim's "Don't Mess With Me," which revolves around a speeded-up sample from Pat Benatar's "Heartbreaker," is a defiant response to romantic betrayal, and it suggests a darker motivation for her armorlike eroticism. Over a skittering, dirty bass studded with searing peals of electric guitar, Kim raps, "Now I'm back to my old ways, like in the old days/Flirtin', not givin' a fuck, what?/Got you lookin' in the mirror sayin', 'Damn!' Sick thinkin' 'bout the next man fuckin' this tight pussy/Niggaz want me, even though they got a honey/If I'ma be No. 2, they givin' me some hush money." It's a fierce track, but a sad tale, one that suggests just how defeatist the whole 'ho mentality is.
Old-fashioned feminists are often accused of man hating, but "The Notorious K.I.M." proves that there can be just as much animosity in trying to beat boys at their own game. The record is just one more bit of evidence that the self-conscious lasciviousness of the past few years has, in many cases, marked an escalation rather than a truce in the sex wars. One can see this everywhere: Former New York Press sex columnist Amy Sohn's "Run Catch Kiss" was all about the frustration and loneliness beneath her fraudulent libertine pose. The documentary "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story" followed a woman who went straight from porn studies to porn acting, but the tale was bleak and the star seemed far more deluded than emancipated. And this record, which, given Kim's new glamour-girl status, one might have expected to be giddy and triumphant, instead feels battle-scarred and vicious.
Of course, on one level it's utterly preposterous to even be talking about Lil' Kim in feminist terms, and she can hardly be faulted for not living up to an ideology she never subscribed to. But that's exactly the point -- any version of feminism that makes political idols of sexual mercenaries is itself absurd.
There's a lot that's dazzling about "The Notorious K.I.M." The flamenco rhythm on "No Matter What They Say" is simply delicious, her flow agile and enticing. "Right Now," her parody of Suzanne Vega's hip-hop-inflected "Tom's Diner," is mean-spirited but effective; she nails Vega's whiny deadpan cadence. Indeed, the very violence of Kim's delivery throughout makes it arresting. But it's also an overwhelmingly gloomy, martial and depressing record. The unarticulated pain beneath her bravado makes it feel more authentic, but there's nothing liberating about it. If there's no joy in playing the role of a whore, then there's no power in it, either.