In 1996, the diminutive Kimberly Denise Jones, AKA Lil' Kim, came blasting out from under the wing of her mentor and lover Notorious BIG, proving that it wasn't just men who could brag about coitus, cars and cash. Five years later, she became the first female rapper ever to have a US No 1, teaming up with Christina Aguilera, Pink and Mya on a version of Lady Marmalade, stealing the show at the Grammys in knee-high boots and a gold dressing gown. Her last album, The Naked Truth, was her third in a row to reach the US Top 10.
But that was back in 2005. Since then, Kim has served 12 months in jail for perjury and spent more time on reality TV than in the recording studio (Pussycat Dolls Presents: Girlicious was a low point, although Len Goodman did compliment her "bionic booty" on Dancing With The Stars). In the meantime, her rap throne was usurped by Nicki Minaj, with Kim reduced to beefing from the sidelines; the cover of her Black Friday mixtape ("Tragic shit," said US hip-hop magazine Vibe) imagined a leather-clad Kim decapitating her rival with a broadsword.
However, as Kim's publicist sternly insists before our interview, I am to emphasise the positive when I come to speak to her. That means no questions about Biggie, Nicki or plastic surgery, lest I find our call terminated. What follows is a highly awkward game of elephant-in-the-room avoidance…
Hello. How should I address you? Lil' Kim? Kim? Kimberly? Queen Bee? "Lil' Kim is fine."
Where are you right now? "I'm at home in New Jersey."
What can you see? [Annoyed] "I'm in New Jersey, I'm in my home doing this interview. Getting ready for my show that I have tomorrow."
Are you fully recovered after your recent car accident [Kim was in a neck brace for a few weeks]? "Erm, yeah. I'm still going back and forth to my doctor, but I definitely feel much better. It was scary."
You're playing Lovebox in London. Are you excited? "I'm super, super excited. I can't tell you how excited I am."
How do you feel about the UK? "To be coming back is just an amazing thing and it's also a blessing."
What can people expect from your set? Any special guests? "I love reinventing my music and myself as well, and that's something my fans love about me. People are going to have so much fun."
So… any special guests? "We'll just have to see, huh."
Can you talk me through a typical day for Lil' Kim? [Testily] "I can't tell you all my business. I love spending time with my dog, my niece and my family. I'm very family-oriented."
When can we expect a new Lil' Kim album? "It's coming. I don't like to say when, because we're getting ready to drop a few singles. We're doing things a little different and we're setting up for the singles, and then after that I'm sure the album will drop."
I saw that you were in the studio with [Celine Dion collaborator] Diane Warren, which is slightly surprising. How did that come about? "That's what I'm talking about. Those are the things that people aren't going to expect from me. I love doing things people don't expect. The fans will be well fed."
Have you written a ballad together? [Ignores question] "Diane Warren to me is just awesome."
Do you write your lyrics down before you get in the booth? "Yeah. Sometimes I'll be driving and a lyric will come into my head, and I will have to pull over and record it on my phone."
Have you woken up in the middle of the night with an idea? "I wake up in the middle of the night a lot."
What do you make of the state of hip-hop at the moment? [Raises voice slightly] "OK, no disrespect, but I don't like that question. Music is music. It could be 20 years from now or 20 years ago you could ask me that question and I still wouldn't like it. "The state of hip-hop"? I mean, when a good song is a good song it goes to the top. I. LOVE. GOOD. MUSIC. Period."
Right. So is there an artist on your iTunes that would surprise people? "I tweeted Gotye about his song Somebody That I Used To Know. I think people would be surprised to hear that I love that kind of music."
If we were to collaborate on a song right now, what would we do? How would we start? [Long silence] "I'd have to see what your talent level is first."
It's pretty high. "When it's in your heart, you have to follow that. That's what makes me special."
Do you think you paved the way for female performers to be more experimental in terms of attitude and image? For example, I can see your influence in people like Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. "I love Rihanna because I see a lot of Rihanna in me and a lot of me in Rihanna. Miley and I have clicked. She told me that the two artists she's ever wanted to collaborate with are me and Dolly Parton."
I'd love to see Lady Marmalade 2013 with you, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and Dolly Parton. "That's hilarious!"
It's a good time for female MCs at the moment , with Azealia Banks, Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea to name a few. Does that make you proud? "Yes, yes, yes. I'm proud of my ladies. It would be great if we could all stand in a line, it would be really awesome. It's the time for females. You're going to see a lot from us this year. Something amazing is going to happen."
Are you a feminist? [Laughs] "I'm pretty feminine."
True. "I'm definitely pro-females, but I wouldn't say I'm 'female power, you men don't matter'. That's not me. I think women should always be respected. I'm not going to stand on the corner with a picket sign, but I'm going to support my ladies all the way. But I also understand the views of men as well."
Are you annoyed that your achievements – the first female rapper to ever have a US No 1, etc – sometimes seem to get lost amongst all the bullshit? "I think, when you're great, not everyone's going to give you your props, and you can't really worry about that. In my eyes, I'm still climbing. I'm still taking myself to the next levels in my career, and that's fine with me. When it's time for my rewards, I will get them."
One of my favourite quotes of yours is this: "I haven't had sex in eight months. To be honest, I now prefer to go bowling." "When did I say that? I don't remember that. I might have said that."
Are you any good at bowling? "I like bowling. I suck at it, but I like it. You know what's so funny? I have days when I'm absolutely great at doing it, and then I have days when I just don't understand it."
How was Dancing With The Stars? "That was one of the best things I've ever done in my career. I was surprised at how much I learned about the dancing and how much I learned, period. It just opened me up in a way I have never been opened up before. It was the best thing. I would do it again."
Your rumba was incredible. "Thank you! My favourites were between the tango, the jive and the pasodoble."
Have you been offered any other reality TV show or talent-show jobs? "I get offered reality shows all the time. Some of them just aren't my tastes at all."
Do you think people have a misconception that your life is a crazy whirlwind, when actually it's pretty straightforward? "I think people have a misconception of me, period. My life has been a whirlwind sometimes, but it's different to what people think. I definitely feel like there's a misconception about me and who I am."
Last question, then. You seem like you're in a positive place right now – so are your beefing days behind you? [Voice rises again] "That's a premature judgement to make, because I've always been a positive person. People say things about me that they don't understand. No disrespect to you, but you really have to look at what you said – "You seem to be in a positive place now". You don't know me. When have you ever seen me be negative?"
Lil' Kim plays Lovebox at Victoria Park, E8, Sunday (credit Guardian)