G.O.A.T. Album Anniversary Retrospective – Vol. 2: “Hard Core” – Lil’ Kim

Go ahead. Snicker and laugh, and then denounce this edition of the G.O.A.T. Album Anniversary Series for its…uh, raunch factor.

Or bring up the myriad of other female rappers of the ’90s and ’00s who made their marks on hip-hop, like Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Eve, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Rah Digga and Foxy Brown.

Lil' Kim's classic Hard Core album was released 20 years ago this month.
Lil’ Kim’s classic Hard Core album was released 20 years ago this month.

But truth be told, this is possibly the greatest female rap album of all time by arguably the best female rapper of her generation.

It was 20 years ago this week that Lil Kim’s Hard Core debuted on the U.S. album charts at #11, which at the time was the highest ranking début for a female rapper.  The album was “executive produced” by the late Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace and Lance “Un” Rivera and has since sold 2.5 million copies in the U.S. and over 6 million copies worldwide.

Hard Core was a tale of female sexual liberation at a time when such a thing in hip-hop was taboo.  It was at once groundbreaking and degenerative, placing Lil’ Kim’s private parts – and what she wanted done to them – front and center for mass public consumption.  It may have very well been the album that paved the way for other female rappers (and more men) to explore the sexual side of music more explicitly than had ever been done before.

This promo from 1996 previewed the Hard Core album's release on November 12, 1996.
This promo previewed the Hard Core album’s release on November 12, 1996.

Indeed, it came at a time during the 1990s when more and more women were making it okay to talk about sex in as demonstrative a way as possible.  To wit, only three and a half years before Lil’ Kim’s début album dropped, Janet Jackson had pushed the envelope (if ever so slightly) with the janet. album and several of its tracks (“If,” “Anytime, Anyplace”).  And before her, the arguable Queen of Schlock, Madonna, had blown the doors wide open with 1992’s Erotica album and the accompanying “Sex” booklet featuring her in several provocative, if not artistic, poses (this following her equally provocative 1990 single “Justify My Love” and its steamy accompanying video).

But those were pop artists and theirs was almost Disney material compared to what Kim was about to drop with her début.  More importantly, unlike with pop music, sex in hip-hop had been primarily men’s territory.  For many years in rap music history leading up to Kim’s coming-out party, men had always had the final word when it came to what went down in the bedroom.  Women were usually portrayed as mere objects, were usually one of many in a non-monogamous setting, and were usually the one’s being directed.

That all changed with Hard Core.  In this album, Kim was the director, and her, um, kitty cat received top billing.  And from the start, with the opening skit, “Intro in a-Minor,” you knew this would not be your average X-rated movie.  It was triple-X all the way, with Kim going all-in and hard…with no Vaseline.

Indeed, with this album, Lil’ Kim was Millie Jackson on steroids, unleashing a barrage of sexual exploits that would have made porn stars shrivel up and quiver.

Any illusions to the contrary were immediately cast aside with the opening line to the album’s first true track, “Big Momma Thang,” in which the rapper boldly starts, “I used to be scared of the d*ck, now I throw lips to the shit, handle it like a real bitch.”  That famous song itself followed a two-minute prelude in which listeners were treated to the opening skit where a gentleman “enjoyed” an X-rated flick starring our young rap mistress.

The album was raw, yet visual; over-the-top, but focused.  So focused in fact, that had the subject matter been anything else, one could almost label it a concept album, with a central “I’m-a-bad-ass-bitch-from-the-streets” theme running throughout.

The first single released from Hard Core was "No Time" featuring Puff Daddy.
The first single released from Hard Core was “No Time” featuring Puff Daddy.

Indeed, the next track in Lil’ Kim’s opus was the principle carrier of that message and served as the album’s first commercial single, the Sean “Puffy” Combs-produced “No Time,” which reached the top ten on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart and #1 on the rap list.  In it, Kim spoke of her faux gangsta status (but you wanted to believe her) and her sexual prowess (you definitely believed her).  She and her “No Time” rap partner, Puffy, also shamelessly (and likely without compensation) dropped several brand-name references, from Cristal champagne to Mercedes-Benz, which – while it’s a dubious title – played a big part in earning Lil’ Kim the label of being the biggest brand-name dropper in rap.

That dubious distinction aside, the album was excellently produced, even if it was very sample-heavy (you have to remember this was mid-’90s hip-hop).  Puffy, Biggie and company relied almost exclusively on samples for their beats and melodies, not unlike many other producers and rappers, so you almost have to grant them a pass while rating Hard Core, which was basically a product of its own time.

Besides, it’s what they did with the samples – as well as what they chose – that made Hard Core work so well.  Most of the tracks sampled relatively obscure songs from decades earlier.  “Big Momma Thang” sampled Sylvester’s “Was It Something I Said.”  “Crush On You” used Jeff Lorber’s “Rain Dance” and Average White Band’s “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.”

The remix of "Crush On You," which added Kim's vocals, was at one point the most popular track from Hard Core.
The remix of “Crush On You,” which added Kim’s vocals, was at one point the most popular track from Hard Core.

The most familiar samples were reserved for “Not Tonight,” which turned out to be the album’s biggest single.  The original album version used George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around,” while the single remix sampled “Ladies Night” by Kool & the Gang, both of which were #1 R&B and top-ten pop hits.

But Hard Core is as important for its timing in rap history as it is for its content.  Before 1996, the female rappers who’d made the biggest strides in the hip-hip game were Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, and Roxanne Shanté.  And while they each had their own rap flows and unique types of appeal, none of them came as gangsta-hard and sexually raw as Lil’ Kim.

Her entry onto the scene had been perfectly setup by her 1995 singles with the rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A., including “Get Money” (both the original and the remix).  The success of that song alone had people wildly anticipating her first solo project.

But Kim wasn’t alone in this newly liberated field of female rappers.  The biggest challenger to her throne at the time of Hard Core’s release in November 1996 was fellow Brooklyn rapper Foxy Brown, who’d made her own mark only months earlier with two single guest appearances: “Touch Me, Tease Me” by Case and “Ain’t No (Nigga)” by Jay-Z (his début single).  Those singles setup Foxy’s own début album, Ill Na Na, just a week after Kim’s dropped, which laid the foundation for an increasingly intense rivalry between the two rappers for years to come.

Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown on the cover of The Source magazine's February 1997 issue.
Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown on the cover of The Source magazine’s February 1997 issue.

Foxy’s album peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200, beating Kim’s short-lived record of #11 for female rappers.  But Kim’s album endured and wound up selling far more copies worldwide.  Notwithstanding the numbers, the two rappers’ co-existence on the mainstream rap scene made for a classic rivalry not unlike those of several of hip-hop’s male MCs over the years, firmly establishing the two as hip-hop forces with which to be reckoned for several years after their respective debuts.

But Hard Core, in all its pure, unadulterated filth and materialism, was the superior album and set the new “low” standard for what women could talk about in music – yet in the most powerful sense.  She went toe-to-toe with male counterparts on several of the album’s tracks, shamelessly rapping about a gangsta and mafia-like lifestyle that she likely could only fantasize about.  Sure, the topics were mostly violent, raunchy, misogynistic and degenerative in nature, but that rawness and Kim’s natural flow were the album’s and the rapper’s main sources of appeal.

Take for instance what was perhaps the album’s hardest-hitting rap performance, “Queen Bitch,” in which Kim spits, “I got that bomb-ass cock, a good-ass shot, with hard-core flows to keep a ngga dck rock.”  I don’t know too many brothers that could go toe-to-toe with a woman who didn’t mind making an anatomically incorrect reference to her genitalia to prove her point.

Or in another standout track, “Drugs,” in which Kim invokes Biggie (a constant theme) while she raps about her favorite things: jewels, cars, clothes and sex.  Biggie provides the hook in the form of a memorably sung chorus where he acknowledges just how alluring the song’s protagonist really is: “Damn, Ma. I love you like the lah, the ganja. Sensimilla, can I feel ya? All I wanna do is touch ya, the ultimate rush. You’re drugs baby.”

The song was as addictive as its title suggested.

Illegal references aside though, the album was so excellent in its story-telling (consider another standout track, “M.A.F.I.A. Land”) that many couldn’t believe the lyrics were all Kim’s. Indeed, rumors of ghost writers swirled around the project as some believed that Biggie was behind many (if not all) of Kim’s lines.  While it was true that Kim had cowriters listed for each of the album’s tracks, ironically, Biggie was only given co-writing credits on one, “F**k You,” although he appeared on several more.

Lil' Kim and her mentor, the late Notorious B.I.G.
Lil’ Kim and her mentor, the late Notorious B.I.G.

Perhaps there may have been some truth to the rumors, because Biggie’s death merely four months after Hard Core’s release had many people wondering if Lil’ Kim could repeat Hard Core’s magic with her follow-up, which wouldn’t come for nearly four years.  Indeed, that follow-up, 2000’s The Notorious K.I.M., failed to achieve the sales numbers or critical acclaim that Hard Core did before it. Some critics – and many fans – acknowledged that Biggie’s lack of presence on the second album was “gaping.”

But any artist would be hard pressed to out-do such a landmark album as Hard Core, which to this day is considered to be one of the greatest albums by a female hip-hop artist ever.

Don’t agree?  Name another rap album as complete and homogeneous as Hard Core using the comments section below, and I’ll reconsider my premise.  But for now, the album has earned its place in the djrobblog G.O.A.T. Album Anniversary series.

Happy 20th anniversary to Lil’ Kim on the hip-hop classic, Hard Core!

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DJRob

Best tracks:

  1. Big Momma Thang
  2. Crush On You
  3. No Time
  4. Drugs
  5. Queen Bitch
  6. Not Tonight
  7. M.A.F.I.A. Land
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