When an acquaintance within the music industry extended an invitation for me to attend Lil’ Mama’s music release party, my first thought running through my head was “Lil’ Mama is still making music”? Keep in mind, I’m 22 years old, and the peak of Lil’ Mama’s career was when I was in my last year of elementary school about to enter junior high school back when Myspace was the wave. Moreover, if she was still making music and planning to release it, she (or her team) were not doing an excellent job of promoting it heavily for audiences and tastemakers are actually to be in the loop.
May 24th was the day that Lil’ Mama had a small intimate music release party for her new single “Shoe Game.” However, the artists who were getting the most hype around this week — in place of their album releases — were bubblegum pop-guitar playing-carbon copy Shawn Mendes, experimental rapper A$AP Rocky and G.O.O.D Music rapper Pusha T (at the beginning of his heavily publicized rap beef with the 6 God). Moreover, to compare these three artists to what Lil’ Mama, we have to examine the facts first.
“Shoe Game” is Lil’ Mama’s first major single in 10 years — unless you count her 2015 briefly-viral track “Sausage” based on the popular Vine trend. Lil’ Mama was born Niatia Kirkland, the eldest of eight brothers and sisters, growing up between Harlem and Brooklyn and was discovered by a music manager while walking down the street rapping. She hit the big time in 2007 with two Top 10 hits: the Roxanne Shante-sampled “Lip Gloss” and “Shawty Get Loose” with Chris Brown and T-Pain. However, “Lip Gloss,” a self-assured and brassy tune about pulling up the school with the hottest cosmetic accessory — is truly Lil’ Mama biggest and most remembered song to date. Most people I know don’t remember “Shawty Get Loose,” and if they do, the most famous lines of the song (the hook) are from Chris Brown.
Not long after the initial success, came a feature on the remix of Avril Lavigne’s 2007 hit “Girlfriend” and nominations from the MTV VMAs, BET Awards, and Teen Choice Awards for the then 18-year old but issues between her and her record label Jive began to arise. Her debut album VYP (Voice of the Young People) was released months after the hype from her two singles died down (which is never good for an artist especially a new one) and subsequently flopped. The album debuted at No. 25 on the Billboard 200 and last time I checked, sold an estimated 66,000+ copies.
Lil’ Mama kept herself busy as a judge on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, but in 2009 she caught the biggest L of her career at the Video Music Awards. I never watched the 2009 VMAs but the major stories I remember from that time was budding pop-star Lady Gaga’s bloody performance of “Paparazzi” and Kanye West stealing the shine from Taylor Swift’s award to let everyone know Beyoncé truly should’ve won the Best Female Award for “Single Ladies.” It wasn’t until years later that I learned about the Alicia Keys-Jay Z debacle.
For those who need a refresher, Jay-Z released his 11th album The Blueprint 3 the week before and was gearing up to debut the third single from the album, an ode to his hometown of New York City with neo-soul icon and fellow New York native Alicia Keys titled “Empire State of Mind” via the 2009 VMAS. Near the end of Jay and Keys’ performance of the song, Lil Mama jumped onto the stage to start bobbing her head to the beat and posed b-boy stance with Alicia and Jay once they finished. (With both artists trying hard not to acknowledge the then-19-year-old rapper; Jay-Z quietly trying to tell Lil’ Mama to fall back.)
While the song went on to stay at No. 1 on the pop charts for five weeks and be dubbed by former NYC mayor Micheal Bloomberg as the “newest anthem of the Yankees” and one of the top 10 best songs about New York by the New York Daily News, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys were very displeased with Lil’ Mama. Jay-Z spoke to Angie Martinez on HOT 97 saying “To interrupt that moment for us, I don’t think that was the right thing to do.” Alicia Keys was on the Today Show promoting her lead single to her fourth album The Element of Freedom saying, “We can appreciate [Lil’ Mama] her being overwhelmed and inspired,” Keys said, “but we would have appreciated it if she would have done it from her seat.” Since then, Lil’ Mama’s career has been the same. She was blackballed from the industry telling Complex; many “people felt like they didn’t want to take a chance on me with certain things because it might have made Jay Z or Alicia Keys not want to work with them” and MTV banned her from attending their award shows. Lil’ Mama also decided to leave Sony Music as she told Complex she wasn’t in the space to create music.
Since then, she has made some memorable career moments — most notably playing the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in the VH1 TLC biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story along with Keke Palmer and Evan Ross that clocked in 4.5 million viewers when it premiered. She capitalized off the viral trend the #SausageMovement with a song called “Sausage” that made waves online and, in the fall of 2017, she starred in another TV movie (on the urban channel TV One) titled When Love Kills: The Falicia Blakely Story with Lance Gross and Tami Roman which snagged two NAACP Image Awards.
The music release party for “Shoe Game” was as a mix of unorganized, crowded, tedious and full of “fake love” as something Drake would say. The music release party took place on the eve of Memorial Day weekend at a life-size dollhouse building called the A Little Palace in Brooklyn – The Love Shack located in Bushwick, Brooklyn where the Lil’ Mama also spent some time in a homeless shelter in her early years with her mother and two older brothers.
We were told to arrive promptly at 6 p.m., but my black ass should’ve realized Lil’ Mama and her team was running on CP time. They weren’t finished setting up yet, and we were left to wait 20-25 more minutes outside (thank god the weather was beautiful & sunny) as told by one of the hosts — a young Spanish-looking lady with red hair and a latex outfit remint of a futuristic prostitute. Then one of the security guards walks to a black SUV to escort the star of the night — Lil’ Mama — to the inside of the building. (The gate looks like a cross between a small house in South Central and a faux chic Italian restaurant). Lil’ Mama pleasantly says hi to me as she walks into ready. Was I starstruck? Hell no!
You have to realize although I consider myself a pop culture pundit & celebrity enthusiast, I don’t care to get starstruck or the want to take a photo with every celebrity or public figure. They are all not equal to loving (or stanning) in my eyes. I remember last year at a taping of MTV’s TRL revival, T-Pain & singer-songwriter Julia Michaels were guests. While I do bop to some of T-Pain songs, I’m not the level of a fan where I would want to see him in concert or push and shove my way to get a photo with — hell I couldn’t even remember the words to his “Buy U a Drank” song. Meanwhile, Julia Michaels, who has written for acts like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato & Fifth Harmony, was finally getting a chance to shine with her debut single just missed the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 when she came on the show in July. I had no clue who she was nor, did I care for the song when I heard a little bit of it after. My friend that came with me did partake in the hype of these two guests.
I was more surprised by seeing what Lil’ Mama looks like in person; her stage name fits as she is very petite, and she looks more light-skin (redbone like Beyoncé) that what she appears to look on television or the internet. I had to ask myself the last time I saw a picture of Lil’ Mama although I knew she was a little lighter than me. While I genuinely don’t know what the deal with that is, there have been some black celebrities — from Michael Jackson to Nicki Minaj — who have been accused by many of bleaching their skin with receipts to prove it.
When we finally got in for the event, drink and socialization were served with music playing in the background as I wait for the announcement to start. Lil’ Mama eventually came out wearing an angelic white ensemble, dressed in a white halter dress paired with a sheer feathered robe. She greeted everyone with a smile and thank the crowd for coming to this event to debut the lead single “Shoe Game” to her upcoming album. The attendees included relatives/friends of Lil’ Mama and her team, social media influencers and press to cover the event as the rapper still possesses enough clout. However, things took a left turn when her camp experienced technical issues while trying to give us an exclusive look at the “Shoe Game” video via Vimeo. (Which didn’t have to happen had someone decide to put a copy of the video onto a flash drive in case of an emergency.)
If Lil’ Mama was looking a song to get her back to the forefront of conversations in the world of hip-hop, then that was not going to happen with a lackluster single like “Shoe Game.” Not even the producer behind the song — Ron Browz who has worked the likes of Nas, DMX & Ludacris — could save it from sounding like a grown-up version of “Lip Gloss.” The hook is easily disposable after a few listens and her verses aren’t memorable. The video to the song gets an A+ much in part to its Rihanna-Nicki Minaj styled aesthetics.
Even when I look back at when Lil’ Mama was the new kid on the ‘07 block, her artistry was not too far from Soulja Boy. She was a kiddy rapper; an artist not to be taken seriously by audiences and nothing other than the flavor of the month. I jokingly found it interesting when two guests asked Lil’ Mama when it was time to take questions that she’s “inspired so many young girls” and she’s “iconic.” (Her manager made it clear for guests do not ask any questions that aren’t music-related, although I honestly had nothing interesting to ask this Harlem MC). Lil’ Mama is washed-up, especially concerning her music career. When it comes to “being washed-up,” there are different types: you may not be topping the charts in 2018, but you’re still a motherfucking legend in the industry like Mary J. Blige or Lil’ Kim, or you’re a flash in the pan aka here today gone tomorrow. Lil’ Mama fits into the latter and would very hard time trying to compete in a rap world now dominated by the Cardi Bs and Nicki Minaj’s.
However, through it all, Lil’ Mama remained hopeful and focused, always plotting her next move. As an independent artist, she also makes sure to keep up with the trend and moves that major record companies are making through a close friend of her in the industry who work behind the scenes. As exemplified by her two hit films, Lil’ Mama could potentially find greater success in the world of acting (her IMDB says she has two projects in production) but ultimately only time will tell what this Harlem MC will have in store for her followers and admirers. However, we’ll be following.