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Original release date: 12 November 1996
Label: Undeas Recordings / Atlantic Records

Lil’ Kim’s solo debut album Hard Core opens with a man masturbating at a porn theatre, using artificial popcorn butter as his lubricant. Sarcastically titled Intro in A-Minor, Kim dives headfirst into attacking the vulnerability of men, particularly in the midst of ejaculation. It was an audacious move at a time when hip-hop was coming off gangster rap, where hyper-masculine tropes were the norm. As the man shouts “Kim!” in the throes of self-induced passion, Kim solidified her position as the Queen in a way that had never been done before.

1996 was a momentous year in hip- hop music. The Fugees released their follow-up The Score, a record which made them household names thanks to Lauryn Hill’s adept lyricism. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Jay-Z was coming through with his earth-shattering debut Reasonable Doubt, a project that at its core encapsulated the narrative of drug dealer turned hitmaker. Tupac Shakur tragically passed away in autumn, while The Roots lived on the same plane as The Fugees, releasing their third studio album, the geniusly musical Illadelph Halflife. A lot was happening, to say the least, and for newcomers wanting to walk a different path, the road was open.

That November, we were met with two sexually charged debut projects from hip-hop’s would-be leading ladies: Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core and Foxy Brown’s Ill Na Na. While there had been some pioneers, like Lauryn Hill, women taking up space in hip-hop still felt like a rarity. Lil’ Kim, though, was blazing a trail. Her style was incomparable, she possessed a star quality and a new energy. Not only did she have a strong head start with her position as First Lady of Junior M.A.F.I.A., the Brooklyn hip-hop crew, but her mentor-slash-paramour The Notorious B.I.G. was sitting at the top of hip-hop. While Biggie gave her the opportunity, Kim grabbed the baton and ran with it. If we’re passing out crowns here, it was only right that the next would go to the woman dubbed the Queen Bee.

"Her style was incomparable, she possessed a star quality and a new energy"

Her debut album Hard Core was exactly as the title states; an abundance of sex, money and violence, sprayed across 53 minutes. Kim used large strokes to paint her uninhibited masterpiece, and, significantly, wherever The Notorious B.I.G. appeared, Kim was able to unravel his interpretations of the female psyche in a way that felt seamless: “If Peter Piper pecked ‘em, I bet you Biggie bust ‘em/ He probably tried to fuck ‘em, I told ‘em not to trust ‘em,” she raps on the fiery Queen B@#$H. “Lyrically, I dust ‘em, off like Pledge/ Get hard like sledgehammers, bitch with that platinum grammar.” Her aesthetic was equally mind-blowing. Colourful minks with wigs to match, designer threads, all wrapped around a tiny under 5-foot-tall frame.

It wasn’t without pushback. Kim was written off as “raunchy” by critics, when really it was a woman’s take on the overtly sexual lyrics that male rappers had spewed from the opposite direction for decades. Whenever female artists dare to claim agency of their desire, to showboat their sexual prowess and turn it into art, misogyny follows. The critiques were different, though, when directed at a black woman artist, like Kim. In 1992, when Madonna released Erotica, followed quickly by her book SEX, she was met with derision, though a large constituent still called it art. With Kim, her work was written off as smut when Kim was really changing hip-hop as we know it. It was a call to action, a declaration of sexual freedom, and Kim stood at the forefront.

"Whenever female artists dare to claim agency of their desire, to showboat their sexual prowess and turn it into art, misogyny follows"

On Big Momma Thang, she makes her sexuality explicitly clear. “I used to be scared of the dick,” she begins, “now I throw lips to the shit/ Handle it, like a real bitch.” Kim is claiming ownership of her own story of embracing sex and Jay-Z is on the track, nodding in agreement. The narrative changes gears for No Time, as Kim lists top-tier fashion designers and women known for abundant wealth to the tune of Puff Daddy’s signature ad-libs. She’s still horny, though, referring to herself as “the rhinoceros of rap.”

However, by Spend a Little Doe, she’s shooting her boyfriend for not visiting her in prison. Intriguingly, that mafia narrative runs through a number of songs, including Drugs, M.A.F.I.A. Land, and closer Fuck You. The switch here though, is that while women are typically seen as an accessory to the men in mafia stories, Kim was the one in the position of capo. She is the one in charge, questioning loyalty, demanding her money, and waving the gun, even shooting it.

"Hard Core is a watershed moment for female sexual agency and empowerment in hip-hop"

Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core had a lot going on, but it needed to. In order for a woman to command the attention of the room, quick-witted lyrics and radio-ready singles were essential. But you needed something more – you needed a short, sharp shock. And Lil’ Kim knew how to shock. Hard Core is a watershed moment for female sexual agency and empowerment in hip-hop, and cemented her status as an icon. If that isn’t hardcore, what is?

Kathy Iandoli is the author of God Save the Queens: The Essential History of Women In Hip-Hop, released through Dey Street Books/Harper Collins.

This feature appears in Issue 106, purchase an annual subscription and get the next 12 issues of Crack Magazine delivered straight to your door.