In a musical style where a big ego might be one of the qualities you need the most in order to stand out, a lil’ prefix has been going in and out of fashion for the past thirty years. Recently it’s started to make another comeback. Some of these Lils may be short in stature but there’s nothing small about their talent, personalities, or antics, especially judging by the way they’ve invaded the American rap landscape, crushing the other family that was once in vogue, that of the Youngs (Thug, Jing, Buck, M.A...) without contest.
The name originates in American gangs; a nickname given to members who aren’t at the top of the hierarchy, and rap (as it has done with many street codes and expressions) has appropriated it. The first recorded rapper came from Texas, a former drug dealer named Troy Lane Birklett who became Lil’ Troy and had a career with the group Mass 187 and as a solo artist since the late 1980s. The following decade saw the emergence of a few names, including Lil’ Bruce and Lil’ Fame of the New York duo M.O.P. The only woman to have joined this family at the time was also one of the first major female figures in US rap, Lil’ Kim. An escapee from the group Junior M.A.F.I.A., her explosive personality added much needed colour and sexy provocation to a genre that was – at the time – plagued by male rivalries between the East and West coasts. Another addition was Lil’ Mo, a New York rapper who started out in Missy Elliott’s entourage.
The turn of the century saw the emergence of Lil’ Wayne, a rapper who put New Orleans on the hip hop map and became one of the USA’s biggest artists, selling album after album. Like his Atlanta neighbour Lil’ Jon, he quickly became a source of inspiration for a whole new generation of Southern artists who were attracted by his electro rhythms, which in turn gave rise to crunk.
Those that followed – from Lil’ Bow Wow to Lil’ Romeo – didn’t enjoy quite the same success and we would have to wait until the end of the 2010s to see a new generation emerge from all four corners of the United States: Lil’ Reese, Lil’ Durk, Lil’ Yachty, Lil’ Pump...With these names came a new style of minimalist rap, with the tattooed Lil’ Peep and Lil’ Uzi Vert, all leading up to Lil’ Nas X whose success with the 2019 single “Old Town Road” was as surprising as it was phenomenal. This clever cross between rap and country music broke records in both genres and was described by its creator as country trap. The lil’ ones have founded a huge family.