In 2015, hip hop artist Nas told The New York Times: “Your coming of age is about representing who you are, and hip-hop music contains a message — it tells a story about who you are — and what you wear is also proof of it.” For rappers, this idea of “making it” has seemingly always equated to a flashy lifestyle. The story of who they are is just as outward facing as it is inward — and you better believe it’s shiny. That might be why most rap songs feature braggadocios lyrics with obvious and repeated references to how much money rappers have, how big their chains are (and who’s wearing them), and how fly their gear is. It’s almost as if you can’t rap the part if you don’t look rich enough to play the part. But what exactly does “rich” look like?
For male rappers, gold chains have become a sign of newfound wealth. First, there was Big Daddy Kane, who made the necklace the status symbol it is today. Years later, Jay Z would give rappers who signed to his label “Roc-A-Fella” chains; Kanye West would take us through his materialistic urges in “All Falls Down,” rapping about how he went to Jacob the Jeweler before purchasing a home; and Big Sean would offer some insight as to why this particular accessory is so important to an artist once they become successful. In an interview with GQ, he said: “I worked hard as hell for it, you what I’m saying? Man, all them times I had to sleep on the floor. Didn’t have money for gas. I couldn’t afford McDonald’s. Like those times...that’s why it means so much to me to able to do that type of stuff for myself.”
Rap’s earliest female pioneers had a similar chain reaction, embracing an aesthetic that looked just like that of their male counterparts. Roxanne Shante pulled her hair out of her face and into a high ponytail, pairing her oversized denim jacket with bamboo earrings; MC Lyte and Queen Latifah favoured extra-large jeans, snapback hats, tracksuits, and sneakers; Salt-N-Pepa rapped in coordinated streetwear looks. Even Missy Elliott sported expensive sneakers and piled-on the jewellery — not because they were status symbols for women, but because in order for women to have their craft taken seriously, they needed to take their bodies off display.
But for female artists today, the proof of finally feeling liberated, paid, and sexy looks pretty different: Their “get money” outfits no longer consist of hoodies and grills, but are instead comprised of luxurious furs and neon-bright colours first popularised by Kimberly Jones, also known as Lil’ Kim.
Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Lil’ Kim challenged the idea that a woman had to dress like a man in order to be taken seriously as a rapper. Though Jones rose to popularity working with both Notorious BIG and her rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A, it was her debut album Hardcore that cemented her as a force, vocally and visually. To date, some of her most iconic looks can be seen in her “Crush On You” video, which featured the 4’11” rapper decked out in designer goods that match the colours of the various scenes in the video. Today, you’d recognise her influence the minute you see it — and once an artist chooses to channel Lil’ Kim, it signals that she is ready to own her power. She has arrived.
In 2015, Rihanna channeled Lil’ Kim at the iHeartRadio Awards for the first televised performance of “Bitch Better Have My Money” wearing a green fur coat with matching thigh-high boots and sunglasses. (It makes sense Rihanna would pay homage to Lil’ Kim while singing about being paid her due). As critic Doreen St. Félix wrote for Pitchfork: “The Black girl flaunting money is ratchet, the Black girl with money bankrolled her way there through sex, therefore the black girl with money does not properly own it. Since the racist and the sexist are also by definition prudes, this Black girl of their fantasy, no matter how tall her money, can never signify wealth, a sort of class ascendance that has as much to do with politesse in gender roles as it does one’s stock profile.” Trends once considered “hood” — wearing too much lipgloss, brightly-coloured fur, heavily-logo’d clothing — are now mainstream. But for Black women, it was validating to see Lil’ Kim flaunt not just these trends, but her sexuality and wealth, on a global stage.
In October, Beyoncé stopped the world — and most of the Internet — when she posted photos of herself dressed up as Lil’ Kim for Halloween. Like Rihanna, the timing was definitely not coincidental: Since the release of Lemonade, Beyoncé has arguably become more vocal about sociopolitical topics like white supremacy and misogynoir (misogyny towards Black women). Lil’ Kim is someone who owned her sexuality through her clothing and body language long before it was a mainstream occurrence for Black women — and perhaps she’s inspired Beyoncé to do the same.
Like Lil’ Kim’s “Crush On You,” Cardi B’s “Bartier Cardi,” which was released on Monday, was the second single off her debut rap album. Though Cardi B has always owned her sexuality, her latest video shows the rapper reaching new heights visually, thanks to photographer Petra Collins. Patientce Foster, who co-creative directed the music video, tells Refinery29 the aesthetic shift began with the Love and Hip Hop alum’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the night before the song came out. “In December, Cardi expressed that she wants to explore different looks and be more creative,” she said. Her styling team, including Kollin Carter, decided to focus on the '70s. Foster explains that while Cardi loves Lil’ Kim’s style, the Bronx native is looking to express herself in her own individual way. The fact that there is now more than one way for a female rapper to dress and still be taken seriously shows Lil’ Kim’s impact. And now that Cardi B can “walk it like she talks it,” she was more than willing to glide through the door Lil' Kim kicked down in designer heels.
But that’s the beauty of Cardi B and what she represents to her fans. She isn’t afraid to be sexy or talk about her money, and each happen on her own terms. We have yet to see a woman of color demand more and be frank in her struggle to do so. Cardi B has taken Lil’ Kim’s promise to flaunt sexuality and further broken down the stigma of what it means to unabashedly work to be successful. She’s honest about busting her ass to be able to afford certain shoes, and the luxury of how she presents her body — even her plastic surgeries (transparency we have yet to see from Lil’ Kim). Mastering the strip club as a dancer (a culture within itself often moving hip hop forward), helped Cardi B learn to negotiate, not just the terms of her body, but her sexuality.
“Where she’s from, when girls are ready to get dressed up that’s what you wear,” Carter told Billboard in September. “And in real life, ‘Bodak Yellow’ blew up, she wore red bottoms because that’s what it means to make it in the Bronx. It’s a status symbol that the masses can relate to; everyday girls work hard and save up their money to have that shoe. Cardi did the same.”
So when we see Cardi B dripping in diamonds, vintage Dior red fur, and super-glam makeup that could rival Lil’ Kim in her prime, we know it signifies a woman who is even more sure of who she is and where she is headed. And in doing so, she’s inspiring a generation of regular, degular, shmegular girls — all probably wearing Fashion Nova — to get “schmoney” too.