Life After Death

updated 07/14/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1997 01:00AM

A tiny rapper copes with a B.I.G. loss

NOT EVEN DEATH COMES BETWEEN rapper Lil' Kim Jones and her late boyfriend and mentor, gangsta rapper Christopher Wallace—better known to fans as Notorious B.I.G. or by his street tag, Biggie Smalls. After Biggie, 24, was killed in a drive-by shooting last March in Los Angeles, Kim moved into his Teaneck, N.J., two-story condo, where she follows a daily ritual that she says keeps her in touch with her fallen lover. After tumbling out of bed, she walks to the living room, picks up the mahogany box that contains half of Biggie's cremated remains (his estranged wife, Faith Evans, keeps the other half), and gently kisses the polished wood. "I don't do anything before I do that," says Kim, 22. "Saying hello to him gives me the power to face the day."

Since meeting the 6'5", 300-lb. Biggie five years ago in the Brooklyn ghetto where they grew up, Kim, a former drug courier, had relied on him for more than just reaffirming power. When Kim was a shy 17-year-old, Biggie, whose prophetically titled album Life After Death...'Til Death Do Us Part remains on Billboard's Top 10, convinced her to try rap. She quickly became the only female member of Biggie's troupe Junior M.A.F.I.A. When their 1995 debut CD went gold, he convinced his five-foot pocket-protege-turned-girlfriend to go solo.

Kim's debut album, Hard Core, went platinum June 3, transforming her into one of rap's most successful purveyors. She's also, by far, one of the raunchiest. At a recent meeting for shareholders of Time Warner—parent company of Kim's label, Atlantic Records, and also publisher of PEOPLE—C. DeLores Tucker, chair of the National Political Congress of Black Women, cited Kim's ultragraphic lyrics, which glorify promiscuous sex, as being among rap's most offensive. (Warner Music Group execs did not return numerous requests from PEOPLE seeking a comment about Kim's lyrics.) Despite—or perhaps because of—such lyrics, Hard Core recently spawned its third hit single, "Crush on You," and Kim hopes to take her NC-17 act on the road as part of an all-star hip-hop tour this August—just as Biggie would have wanted. "Biggie was my love, my brother, my father and my boyfriend," says Kim. "He loved me and I loved him and I don't care who knows now."

That includes Evans, 24, an R&B singer Biggie wed in 1994, and with whom, unsurprisingly, Kim is not on the best of terms. Kim says Biggie married Evans (who declined to talk to PEOPLE) only after Kim told him she wasn't ready for marriage herself. Still, Kim says, she resented Biggie for marrying Evans, with whom he had a son, Christopher, now 8 months old (a daughter, T'yanna, 3, is from a previous relationship). Though Kim won't say whether she was romantically involved with Biggie during his marriage, she was there for him when he and Evans separated months later. "He was in a marriage that wasn't working for him," Kim says, sitting in Biggie's living room next to a stack of yellowing newspapers bearing headlines such as "The BIG Sleep" and "Blown Away." "I was there before he even met Faith. It's hard to let go of something you had."

Kim says she would like to patch things up with Evans, whose single, "I'll Be Missing You," a tribute to Biggie, has become a No. 1 hit. "It has to end," says Kim of the bad blood between them. "Faith and I were never friends, but I have to understand her pain and she has to understand mine," Kim adds. "It has to end now because she's going to see me if she brings her son to visit his grandmother." (Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, also lives in her son's condo.) "I'm here every day."

Much of every day is spent with the condo's other residents, Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s diminutive rapper Lil' Cease (short for Caesar) and Biggie's manager Damion Butler. On March 9 in Los Angeles, both were in the back seat of a GMC Suburban when the fusillade killed Biggie, who was in the front passenger seat. (The case is under investigation.)

Chain-smoking on Biggie's king-size bed, next to nine pairs of size 13 EEE shoes that haven't been moved from the floor since Biggie died, Cease, 19, recalls that "a dark little car rolled up on the side of Big's door when we stopped at the light and just started firing shots at him. After he got hit, he didn't say nothing. Just straight quiet."

"All Biggie wanted," says Kim, "was to live and be rich." Though she rejects any connection between rap's highly charged lyrics and her boyfriend's demise, Kim admits that the genre's volatile lyrics are behind many a rapper's fortune. "That's what made us our money," she says. "That's what our fans wanted to hear. It's hard to rap about something other than people being murdered and crime. We don't want those things to happen"—in addition to Biggie's death, rapper Tupac Shakur was murdered last September in Las Vegas—"we're just telling it like it is. It may take time before we all start rapping about flowers." For her part. she adds, "I still rap hard-core."

For Kim, growing up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the core of life itself was hard. Her parents—Linwood, a bus driver and former Army sergeant, and Ruby Mae, a housewife—divorced when Kim was very young. She and her brother, Christopher, now 24, remained with their father, but his spit-and-polish ways—he would wake her up by banging a stick on her headboard—drove her out of the house at 15. "I used to think her father's strictness was proper, but I don't anymore," says Ruby Mae, 46, who works as a secretary in a New York City housing agency. "I was raised in a strict home and I put those values on my children, but maybe she kind of rebelled against that." Staying with friends and broke, Kim turned to peddling drugs, a vocation she had dabbled in since she was 12, though, she maintains, "I never sold on the streets." (She also insists she never developed a drug habit despite experimenting.) "I used to help the guys cut it up. I did it to survive. I'm surprised it didn't wreck my life."

Enter Biggie, former crack dealer and aspiring rapper. "We would see each other in the neighborhood and we got close," says Kim, who took his advice and traded the drug trade for rap in 1992. In 1995, a year after a hit with his debut CD, Ready to Die, Biggie formed Junior M.A.F.I.A. and molded Lil' Kim into a profane vamp and star. Ruby Mae, for one, wasn't surprised. "When Kim was 2," her mother says, "she would get into my high heels, put on lipstick and sing in front of a mirror. Her father would call me concerned and say, 'This girl's crazy. She has a problem.' "

Not anymore. "I'm platinum right now," Kim boasts. "There aren't too many men that can say that." The question now is whether she can survive professionally without her image-maker. "Biggie's death made Kim a stronger person," says her mother. "Without him here, she discovered that she is strong enough to make it on her own." Kim agrees. "When Biggie died," she says, "I thought I was going to be on drugs or commit suicide. I was giving up, but Biggie was talking to me not to." Indeed, she says, "Biggie helps me. The other day I was writing and I said, 'Yo, Big, I'm stuck.' Five minutes later, I had the line. I talk to him. I come in. I kiss his urn. I know what he's saying."

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