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‘Hard Core’: How Lil’ Kim’s Debut Album Changed The Game For Female Rappers
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Hard Core’: How Lil’ Kim’s Debut Album Changed The Game For Female Rappers

Breaking all the rules, Lil’ Kim’s debut album, ‘Hard Core’, was as explicit as promised – but it also redefined women’s role in hip-hop.

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Lil’ Kim’s 1996 debut album, Hard Core, completely redefined hip-hop and women’s role within it. There had never been an album before it that so explosively combined hardcore sex, hardcore rap and the diamond-hard core of Kim’s persona: she was fantasy and nightmare all at once. “I talk about the realness, about what’s going on in today’s society,” Kim told MTV in 1996. “It’s what separates me from other rappers.”

Listen to ‘Hard Core’ here.

The backstory: “I’m taking all that and I’m flipping it”

Lil’ Kim – born Kimberly Jones – had a traumatic journey to success. Parental conflict meant she was uprooted and insecure from a very young age. “There was a time when my mother and I were living out of the trunk of her car,” Kim once said. “We slept in the back seat.” After her parents divorced, Kim lived with her father; but the pair argued constantly, Kim feeling that her father was persistently critical of her. At one point, she stabbed him in the shoulder with a pair of scissors. Kim left home at 14, with nowhere else to go.

Homeless, she began running drugs and sleeping where she could, and started getting involved in relationships with men, many of which were emotionally abusive, as she revealed in 1996: “When I was younger, I’ve had a lot of relationships where men used to tell me that I wasn’t all that, that I was ugly, and without them I would never be nothing,” she said. Even four years later, following her huge success with Hard Core and its follow-up, The Notorious K.I.M., those scars ran deep. “It’s always been men putting me down, just like my dad,” she said in 2000. “To this day, when someone says I’m cute, I can’t see it. I don’t see it no matter what anybody says.”

Things changed when Kim was 19, and she met Christopher Wallace – The Notorious B.I.G. – in Brooklyn, New York City. She rapped for him, and he liked what he heard. Biggie was building a group at the time, Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Kim joined it, adopting the name Lil’ Kim. Biggie and Kim also began a relationship, whose tumultuous nature underpinned her raps and influenced her worldview.

As she transformed from Kimberly into Lil’ Kim, she wasn’t afraid of using her difficult past in her music. “Now that I’m older, I’m taking all that and I’m flipping it,” she said in 1996, at the time of Hard Core’s release. “Look, I am somebody and I don’t need you to do this. I’m doing it myself, and now’s the time to build up my self-esteem.”

The launchpad: “Biggie heard her voice and said, ‘This is it’”

Junior M.A.F.I.A. (standing for Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes) were young, all under 20, when they formed; Biggie acted as “godfather” to the group, rather than being a member himself. On their debut album, 1995’s Conspiracy, Kim’s performances were standouts. It was Back Stabbers in particular that pointed to Hard Core and Kim’s developing style. One of the album’s producers, Lance “Un” Riviera, has remembered the importance of that track: “When we were making the Junior M.A.F.I.A. album and she did Back Stabbers, [Biggie] heard the tone in her voice and said, ‘This is it.’”

Biggie’s opinions were profoundly important to Kim, and she has openly acknowledged this. “He became my friend, my lover, my everything. I was his biggest fan,” Kim said in 2016. “He knew I would be the biggest female rapper. I think I inspired him to want to do different things and be different. We were a match made in heaven, like Sonny and Cher or Ashford and Simpson.” But Biggie’s influence also led to rumours that Kim was not her own woman, that she was Biggie’s puppet, and that he even wrote rhymes for her. Those who know Kim have stated that this isn’t true – that while Biggie may have helped her with rap techniques and flow, Kim’s lyrics were her own.

The album: “Love ain’t got shit to do with me and you”

Hard Core is really a concept album, and it starts from a persona: the Queen Bee, the ultimate sex-fantasy, a character conceived as “the high-end side chick to drug dealers”, Lance Riviera has said. “It’s all driven by the male hormones, the male ego, the fantasy. It’s not about love. It’s about being nasty.” Given Kim’s recent past, she knew this world well; she understood its characters and its dynamics.

The album begins with a skit, Intro In A-Minor, in which a man prepares to watch Lil’ Kim in an explicit film (and which ends with the man paying his respects to her in the usual messy fashion). It segues into Big Momma Thang, featuring Jay-Z and Lil’ Cease, which is simply one of the finest hip-hop tracks ever made. Alongside the sexual braggadocio, Jay-Z and Kim also talk business: Jay-Z tries to get Kim to defect, to “leave who you with, I’m with the Roc-A-Fella crew”, while speculating that Biggie has bugged the recording studio in order to nip any betrayal – business or sexual – in the bud.

Hard Core is remembered first off for its explicitness, but it doesn’t take much listening for the fantasy sheen to rub off – and this is where Lil’ Kim’s past trauma bleeds through the “high-end side chick” facade. The sex on the album isn’t all pleasant or consequence-free; nor is it all located in porno unreality. There’s plenty of pubic hair; there’s venereal disease; there’s premature ejaculation. It’s the fleshy stuff of real life.

This tone wasn’t surprising, as Kim was going through her own consequences while in the studio: she was pregnant, with Biggie’s child. “I already knew the kind of relationship that Biggie and I had, and I knew that [having a child] was something that couldn’t take place,” she said in 1999. She terminated the pregnancy, and the darker aspects of Hard Core, about death, disease and violence, reflect her turmoil. “Ask Tina, love ain’t got shit to do with me and you,” she raps on Spend A Little Doe.

“Don’t ask Kim for a date, she’ll want her pussy ate,” Lil’ Cease says on We Don’t Need It, and he’s right. On Not Tonight, one of Hard Core’s most celebrated tracks, Kim laments a parade of men who wouldn’t go down on her – and she vows not to put up with this anymore “They ain’t hit shit, till they stuck they tongue in this,” she raps, alongside, “The only way you seein’ me is if you eatin’ me.” Not Tonight would transform, a year later, into the Ladies Night Remix, losing its cunnilingus carnival while becoming a celebration of rap’s female ascendency. Kim’s peers – Missy Elliott, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Da Brat and Angie Martinez – join her in this joyous pop revamp.

The legacy: “We’ve fought for years as women to do the same things that men are doing”

When Hard Core came out, on 12 November 1996, Lil’ Kim was praised for her skills, but continually ran into criticism for the album’s sexual content. It frustrated the hell out of her, and she called out the double standards. “Because we have people like Too $hort, Luke Skyywalker [of 2 Live Crew], Biggie, Elvis Presley, Prince, who are very, very, very sexual, and they don’t get trashed because they like to do it,” she said in 1997. “But all of a sudden, we have a female who happens to be a rapper, like me, and my doin’ it is wrong. And ’cause I like doin’ it, it’s even more wrong because we’ve fought for years as women to do the same things that men are doing.”

On Hard Core, Lil’ Kim broke rules and transgressed the boundaries for rap. She would go on to have beefs, bust-ups, grief, jail time and controversies, but nothing can ever take away the majesty of her debut album, something Kim herself knows. “I never put Hard Core in a running with any other albums,” she has said. “You know why? It’s a classic. It stands alone. You don’t put God in the category with nobody.”

Find out where Lil’ Kim ranks among the best female rappers of all time.

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