FADER 48: Lil Mama Feature

October 23, 2007

We might still be waiting for Lil Mama to release her debut album, but we talked to her right as "Lip Gloss" attained the crazy status of totally out of left field spring jam 2007, we're still waiting, dudes!

STORY Nick Barat   PHOTOGRAPHY Dorothy Hong

Broadway composer George Gershwin was born in East New York in 1898, and today on the corner of Linden Boulevard and Van Siclen Avenue sits IS 166, a piano-shaped middle school that bears his name. As a surprise for the latest class of Gershwin graduates, school officials have invited Lil Mama to perform at the eighth graders’ commencement ceremony. It’s an event made more notable (and frankly, possible) by the fact that the 18-year-old rapper was in a cap and gown for the same ceremony at George Gershwin just four years earlier.

After a quick, Red Bull-fueled rehearsal session in the PTA room with her gum-smacking, neon Reebok-ed backup dancers, school security guards escort Lil Mama to the field, clad in a white “Smooth Criminal” fedora with a rhinestone hatband. Students, parents, cousins and assorted well-wishers start cheering hysterically, whipping out camera phones and running down the field (“Look at Tisha’s mother! She has her shoes off!”) while Mama and Co move through a quick, choreographed rendition of her single “Lip Gloss.” Once the song is done, the graduating class spontaneously begins to sing and clap the beat to Lil Mama’s hood hit “No Music” as she walks up to the stage. She silences them with a “Chill, y’all!” then remarks, “I didn’t prepare a speech…but for real, congratulations. Set goals. When you go into ninth and tenth grade there’s a lot of peer pressure.” She then walks back to the school, stopping briefly to pose for photos with cafeteria workers and former teachers, and a gaggle of younger students watching from an adjacent playground start shrieking over, “Lil Mama I love you for real! My lip gloss is poppin too!”

The night Lil Mama finished recording “Lip Gloss” at Atlanta’s Tree Sound studios this past winter, the MC born Niatia Kirkland had humble—though focused—goals in mind. “I wanted to get a song on the radio and let it go from there,” she says. “One DJ hears it from another DJ and then all of a sudden it’s playing in different cities. Then I’d be able to put out an independent album. I hoped my story would go something like that, you know what I’m saying?” As she hoped, the track made its way to New York’s Hot 97 thanks to the same jocks who were already dropping Lil Mama’s mixtape freestyle over Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” (which cleverly flipped Jigga’s “Show me what you got, lil mama…” ad libs). And from that point on the Lil Mama story went completely off-script.

“Lip Gloss” is built on the same minimal, John Bonham-on-the-cafeteria-table kickdrums that powered the Clipse’s “Grindin.” Yet where Pusha and Malice took that subatomic thwack to move cane like a cripple, Mama uses it to compose a teen anthem with the instant catchiness of a double dutch chant and the market reach of a Saturday morning toy commercial. It would be far too sugary a confection were she not rapping her ass off, spitting lines about Mac brushes and watermelon L’Oréal with the same ferocity of Lil Kim and Foxy Brown at their sexual predator heights. It isn’t just a song, it’s a smash, and its runaway pop-rap success corralled her a deal with Jive Records and captivated everyone from the New York Times—who took her shoping at Sephora—to Avril Lavigne, who featured Lil Mama on a remix to her cheerleading single “Girlfriend.”

In spite of “Lip Gloss”’s hooky pleasures, the real appeal of the song is Lil Mama herself, a dynamo spawned from the inimitable energy and attitude of New York City’s outer boroughs. “She’s special,” says Lukasz “Dr Luke” Gottwald, the megaproducer behind Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and the majority of Avril Lavigne’s The Best Damn Thing (the “Girlfriend” remix was his idea). “Most of the shit I get is manufactured—you start talking to these kids and realize their parents have had them in dance lessons forever, blah blah blah. I’m not saying that didn’t happen with her, but you can recognize when something is natural and real.”

Niatia Kirkland was born in Brooklyn in 1989 and grew up shuffling between Brooklyn and Harlem. “My mother and father are originally from BK,” she says. “When I was growing up we stayed at a shelter until I was five or six, then I went to Harlem and started kindergarten.” She stayed there at her mother’s apartment through eighth grade, then came back to Brooklyn to finish the rest of her education. “Harlem is real fun, real loose, but Brooklyn is the soul. In BK, even your swagger has to be serious,” she says by way of explaining her dual citizenship. “My skill and my writing is hard-ass Brooklyn, but it’s fun, it’s smooth because of Harlem.”

Lil Mama’s father, True, ran his indie label, Familiar Faces, throughout her childhood. “We had the vans wrapped since I was eleven,” she says. It wasn’t until high school, however, that she began to see her own rapping as something that could grow into more than hallway freestyles between dance classes. With True’s encouragement, his daughter began to take her spit seriously; soon she was in the studio on a regular basis (“I was hyped two years into recording songs—like, wow, this is something I’m doing.”) and back at school, she was forced to face her own embryonic stardom.

                                  “People used to crowd around me like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so hot.’ I don’t know why, but my rapping really made people happy.”

On Lil Mama’s debut album, Voice of the Young People, there are obvious radio singles like the Dr Luke produced “Tour Bus”—which crunks out playground perennial “The Wheels on the Bus” and features the rap debut of an even littler Mama, the MCs younger sister—and “Lil Mama Doll,” rapped from the perspective of an action figure over a Green Lantern beat with a heavy, late ’90s rap radio feel. But there are also sincere acoustic ballads, songs where she sings about God and getting her appendix out in second grade (“He Lifts Me Up”), and a Dame Grease joint that samples Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” When Lil Mama exhorts listeners to stay on their grind, it makes for pep talk hip-hop that’s kind of like Jeezy’s Thug Motivation 101 designed for the tween set—an unexpected move for a girl who could have just laid back and enjoyed her pop coronation. “Yesterday I realized that a lot of girls my age…their minds are somewhere else and it’s crazy,” she says. “Their minds are not focused. A girl told me, ‘I was so mad because another girl told me you was ugly and you not ugly. Then we started arguing about what female rappers are gonna stick around longer.’ Why would you be thinking about that? Stay focused, worry about you. These are the things I want to teach people.”

Meanwhile, “Lip Gloss” continues its infiltration beyond the teen pop scene. At a Spankrock/Ghostface Killah concert earlier this summer, Lil Mama was booked as a surprise opener, and she won over bloggers, fitted-cap night owls and everyone else in the folded-arms crowd with her 15 minutes of undiluted swagger. During “Lip Gloss,” Mama even had to stop and break up two gentlemen who diva-ed out a little too enthusiastically during the “What you know bout me?” section of the chorus, as they slapboxed and threw drinks at each other mid-strut. “That was hot,” she says. “It’s a pride and joy song.” Yet for all her poise and natural star instincts, Lil Mama seems genuinely taken aback by her own effect on people. It’s not false modesty—Lil Mama’s real charm has always been an unassuming one, an “it’s whatever” half-smirk that lets you know she’d still be foot-stomping her way through “Lip Gloss” and “No Music” in an East New York locker room whether anyone was paying attention or not.

As she puts the finishing touches on Voice of the Young People, Lil Mama admits she’s “real surprised” that Missy Eliot personally requested to record with her for the album, and remains thoroughly nonplussed about being whisked away to Miami’s Hit Factory every other weekend to put in work with Timbaland, Swizz Beatz and a host of other big name producers trying to get a cut before the LP’s final deadline. “A studio is a studio, a booth is a booth,” she says. There is, however, one collaboration she’d jump to put together. “Jive was always one of my dream labels, but my number one pick was to sign to Roc A Fella,” she says, her ethereally green eyes the biggest they’ve been yet. “That way I could have been with Jay-Z. He’s the king of Brooklyn, and I’m, like, the princess.”

Lil Mama, "On Fire"

Lil Mama, "G-Slide"

Lil Mama, "Lipgloss"

FADER 48: Lil Mama Feature