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Something peculiar happened this week during one of rap’s most bizarre: Lil’ Kim’s 1996 solo debut, Hard Core, magically scaled up the hip-hop charts of iTunes. Before her Beehive could catch their breath from the pure shock and amazement, it found its ways in the chart’s Top 100, eventually making the digital retailer’s all-genres’ list. So far—at the time of this article’s publication—the album regarded by many as “the Female Rap Bible,” officially peaked at No.6 on the hip-hop side and No.22 on the general.
There was even a brief database glitch where Hard Core temporarily ended up at No.1 on the hip-hop charts, as screenshots circulated on Twitter. Although a snafu of sorts, the moment served as a bit of symbolism: Never forget that the original Queen Bee’s introduction as a lone competitor and entity in the rap world will always reign supreme, no matter how much people try to rewrite that history.
Whenever she recalls her glorious, earth-shattering days in the 90s, Kimberly Denise Jones always makes a point to say “I was 17” when the record came out. And while many would bat an eyelash and post “woke” tweets arguing “this is problematic,” they can’t deny that someone so young could spit like they already obtained veteran status.
Released on November 12, Hard Core would quickly define the genre of hypersexual, dirty rap. Its album cover is one of the music industry’s most lavish—one that succeeds in depicting the album’s lascivious sonics and equally regal attitude and tone. Kim is wearing a sheer silk slip over her lingerie, bent on all fours in front of a fireplace, over the carcass rug of a white polar bear. A couple bouquet of roses—some matching the red shading of the cursive font spelling her name—surround the rapstress, who has yet to open the ice-chilled bottle of Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial champagne for two.
On the back of the CD’s packaging, it seems Kim has drank the liquor, this time around, sitting down and sucking on a lollipop as the aftermath. Next to her is the tracklist of 15 songs in pink font matching some of the other roses. This particular image further enhances the 70s porno allusion her, The Notorious B.I.G., Puffy, and Atlantic Records were going for.
Hard Core delivers with her two intentions: Lil’ Kim as the fantasy every man wants (as evident in the opening “Intro In A-Minor,” where a patron goes to a movie house to see the star in a raunchy flick), and Lil’ Kim as the autonomous gangstress breaking from the shadows of her mentor The Notorious B.I.G. and his Junior M.A.F.I.A. crew. Originally slated to be titled Queen Bee, Hard Core not only satisfies this evergreen moniker for the artist, but also channels the energy the official title suggests.
It’s from the “Intro In A-Minor” that we get introduced to the Big Momma who happens to be fully in command. “Big Momma Thang” begins with Lil’ Kim huskily singing “You got it goin’ on, wha wha, uh you got it goin’ on, wha wha.” This iconic beginning would be capped off by her opening verse for the entire album: “I used to be scared of the dick, now I throw lips to the shit.” Immediately from the jump, we’re listening to a woman who is in charge of her own sexuality on a jazzy-disco-rift sample of Sylvester’s “Was It Something I Said.”
Ironically, on his featured verse, JAY-Z would ask “How B.I.G. and ‘Un trust you in the studio with me, don’t they know I’m tryin’ sex you continuously?” This acknowledgment of how protective her G.O.A.T. mentor could get underscored the effect of her ride-or-die spirit. As her bars flirt back with JAY-Z—while simultaneously taunting her female nemesis, “you want to be this Queen Bee, but you can’t be”—Kim finds a route to break away from B.I.G.’s control.
With a dazzling piano, Kim gets ritzy on her No.1 rap chart hit “No Time,” comparing herself to “rich bitches”—like Princess Diana of Wales and Zsa Zsa Gabor—one wouldn’t necessarily fathom a black female rapper standing next to. She’s still repping her man as a “Bad Girl” under the mentorship of Bad Boy Records, but by “Spend A Little Doe,” her demeanor drastically changes to “Hasta la vista, bye-bye.”
In that track she discusses doing a three-year bid for Biggie’s crime—as well as the ups and downs of their relationship. Although she never served actual time, this moment plays as an allusion to how the Notorious one never made Kim the main woman in his personal life, outside the music, after years of dating.
It’s these masterful methods of storytelling that set her apart from the other women in the game. Lil’ Kim is one of the first to apply her personal strife to the drama of her music, uniquely relating those struggles to the everywoman while arcing out her own narrative.
As the first act of Hard Core ends with the “Take It!” skit where B.I.G. brags about bagging Kim (with other prospects in mind), Lil’ Kim’s presence is nowhere to tangibly be found, but still manages to control the dynamics. Then comes “Crush On You,” where Lil’ Cease raps alone about his fantasies of the rapper.
Behind the scenes, Lil’ Kim would reveal to XXL in 2016 that she had in fact been too pregnant and sick to finish recording the song, prompting the album to play out like that. Eventually a year later, they’d give the song a re-do, adding Kim as the main star—her verses still quotable today and the colorful visual of minks and wigs setting a standard for all women in hip-hop to come during and after.
The following track, “Drugs,” is quite interesting, to say the least. Kim starts by zepherously saying “a different kind of high,” before delving into her mass materialism, and alluding to contact highs from B.I.G.’s cannabis. Of course, some of us will remember the stories from another female rapper (who shall not be named out of respect for this album’s celebration) that recounted her own experiences with contact highs from her ex-lovers, a concept Kim first introduced on Hard Core.
On “Drugs,” Kim efficiently drops brands just as her male counterparts of rap. These names are revisited throughout the album including the Cristal and Prada flowing throughout “No Time.” “Drugs,” like many of the other cuts on this album, has been continuously sampled by other artists. This year, Pusha T would sample the instrumental for his cut “Santeria” on his cocaine rap opus, DAYTONA.
By the time of the “Scheamin’” interlude, listeners enter the second act of Hard Core. Kim flips the script, plotting her revenge to rob B.I.G. and his crew with her homegirls. She’s finally breaking away and standing out on her own to show that ladies run the show. Her lyrics in “Queen Bitch” are hard-hitting and gutter, but dressed in high maintenance mannerisms, something rarely exhibited by women in rap prior to that track’s release.
Kim’s still murderous for B.I.G., but ultimately setting him up. On “Queen Bitch,” there’s a bar where she says “I got that bomb ass cock, a good ass shot/with ‘Hard Core’ flows to keep a nigga dick rock.” This triple entendre of shooting a gun, to comparing herself to the likes of male rappers, to having a lyrically sick album that also titilates erections, exemplifies how the petite gangstress had prepared a serious contender for best all time hip-hop albums.
Continuing the narrative of turning the tables, “Dreams” would be the first female take on Notorious B.I.G.’s “Just Playin (Dreams).” On his Ready To Die LP, Biggie would name-drop a slew of R&B singers with innuendo-induced punchlines. Of course Kim wanted to have her fun with Babyface, Brian McKnight, Joe, and D’Angelo, to name a few. Many have recently suggested that Hard Core’s rise up the charts could have been inflicted by the public’s curiosity of the original blueprint for the ladies, engineered in this track.
“M.A.F.I.A. Land” supports the crew that started her career in the first place, the thunder in the background serving as a precursor for her attention-grabbing verse of 1999’s “Quiet Storm (Remix)” with Mobb Deep. Here, Kim hones in on the popular East Coast mafioso style that B.I.G. would perfect with his last studio album Life After Death. In the final two full-length tracks, “We Don’t Need It” and “Fuck You,” the album takes on jazz undertones while Kim shares banter with members of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. Their featured roles on her album proved that she had been the group’s breakout star and ultimate winner.
What had distinguished Hard Core during that time and up until now, is how Kim took the power of the women before her, who rapped just as hard (MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Moni Love, and Salt-N-Pepa). She just happened to amplify that aesthetic with rules the men both followed and continuously broke, but with a feminine authority. Kim’s undeniable energy helped her female listeners feel in control of their situations (whatever they be), as well as the male hip-hop heads that couldn’t deny her impeccable skill. Eventually she renewed that energy with a trap and stadium anthem landscape on her mixtape, Hard Core 2K14.
Lil’ Kim has said before that, as of now, she only has four studio albums—but they’re all still classics. She’s more than right about that, as the other three ended up charting on the hip-hop iTunes chart this week, as well—something fitting for the Queen of hip-hop.
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