Few artists in the history of rap have made as seismic an impact as Brooklyn, New York's Kimberly Jones, better known as rap icon Lil Kim. Known for her provocative content and liberated sense of style, the Bed Stuy native would step into the spotlight via Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s debut single "Player's Anthem," a hit that featured the Notorious B.I.G. and set the stage for Kim's persona: a glamorous, sexy "Queen Bee" with street sense and lavish tastes. Kim's debut album, Hard Core, would drop a year later, and the often brazen subject matter would leave more than a few jaws dropped, with listeners taken aback by Kim's lascivious bravado and raw lyricism. At the time, it was the highest-charting debut album by a female rapper, and the album's commercial success would ultimately lead to Kim becoming one of the most recognizable faces and names in not just rap, but all of music.

Released on November 12, 1996, Hard Core may have stamped Lil Kim as a breakout solo star, but her rise to fame began two years prior. When fellow Brooklyn native The Notorious B.I.G. was recording his own debut album, Ready to Die, in 1994, an uncredited Kim appeared on two skits (the album's "Intro" and "F*** Me") and she briefly rapped on the track "Friend of Mine." Upon Ready to Die's release, The Notorious B.I.G. would become one of the hottest rappers in the game, and in an attempt to share his success and strike while the iron was hot, his entourage, Junior M.A.F.I.A., would also double as a rap group, with Lil Kim as the lone female member of the crew.

Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s debut album, Conspiracy, would drop less than a year after Ready to Die, and be certified gold off the strength of three singles, "Players Anthem," "Get Money," and "Need You Tonight," all of which featured show-stealing verses from Lil Kim. Emerging as the group's breakout star, plans were set for a solo album and the groundwork would be laid in early 1996. Initially credited as "Lil Kim of Junior M.A.F.I.A." the budding star would increase her stock via soundtrack appearances and guest verses, including a verse on Skin Deep's "No More Games" and verses on remixes for the Isley Brothers' "Floatin' On Your Love" Intro's "Funny How Time Flies," and Total's "No One Else." Having legitimized herself as a solo artist, there would be no more "...of Junior M.A.F.I.A." attached to her credits--especially after the release of her debut solo single, "No Time," in late October 1996.

The Puff Daddy-assisted track peaked at No. 9 on the Hot 100 and become her first song to hit the top slot on the US Rap Songs chart, and would push anticipation for her upcoming album, Hard Core, to a fever pitch. Produced by Stevie J, "No Time," like "Get Money" helped crystalize Lil Kim's image as a gun-toting sex symbol. Particularly racy lines like "Now watch mama, go up and down dick to jaw crazy/Uhh! Say my name baby/Before you nut, I'mma dribble down your butt cheeks/Make you wiggle, then giggle just a little" were explicit enough to make 2 Live Crew blush; and she reveled in her seduction, boasting "Your girl ain't a freak like me or Adina," a nod to a fellow 90s round-the-way sex symbol, singer Adina Howard, who's hit "Freak Like Me" had dominated urban radio throughout 1995.

When Hard Core hit stores that November 12, the LP's fourteen tracks featured a diverse production lineup: Ski, Jermaine Dupri, Nashiem Myrick, Carlos "6 July" Broady, Minnesota, Stretch Armstrong, and Fabian Hamilton. Hard Core was chock-full of sonic goodies, ranging from gritty boom-bap and sample-based soundscapes, to more glossy fare. "Big Momma Thang" pairs Lil Kim with J.M. affiliate and fellow Brooklynite Jay Z, and sees Kim getting raunchy straight out the gate, proclaiming "I used to be scared of the dick, now I throw lips to the shit/Handle it like a real bitch/Heather Hunter, Janet Jacme/Take it in the butt, yah, yazz what" atop a sample of Sylvester's "Was It Something I Said."

The Notorious B.I.G., who was responsible for writing much of Kim's lyrics on Hard Core and is credited as an executive producer, allows for his prized pupil to fly solo for much of the album, only contributing his baritone to three songs on the album. The first, "Crush On You," features Biggie on the songs hook, but Kim, who appears on the popular radio version, is noticeably absent, with fellow Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil Cease taking her place. Lil Kim would later reveal that she was unable to record her verses before turning the album in to the label due to a pregnancy during the final stages of recording. "Drugs," another standout from Hard Core, would also see Biggie aka "The Black Frank White" tackling hook duties while Lil Kim got visceral, resulting in one of the more unsung collaborations between the pair. Biggie's role on the Hard Core highlight "Queen Bitch" would be minute in comparison, but his hypeman antics, ad-libs, and brief couplet took the track over the top, making it among the most addictive cuts on the album.

Keeping the list of features short, with Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Jay Z the only guest stars on the album, Lil Kim is undoubtedly the focal point of Hard Core. Mixing veiled displays of vulnerability ("Spend a Little Doe") with the tales of a femme fatale ("M.A.F.I.A. Land"), Lil Kim displayed various facets of her personality on Hard Core, but the dominant theme that has long been the focus is the album's distinction of being the first from a female rapper to flip the tables and use sex as a strength and a weapon of empowerment rather than being shamed as a byproduct of it.

Kim wasn't the first female rapper with sexual agency: Salt-N-Pepa embraced sex appeal as a part of their image and sexual empowerment as part of their message and MC Smooth rapped in "coochie-cutter" shorts and proudly flaunted herself as a "female mack" back in 1993. But Kim seemed to make no allowances for respectability; she owned her persona in a way that didn't attempt to sermonize and she had the commercial clout to reach farther than many of her predecessors. Her debut album was immaculately crafted--and she would take pop culture by storm in 1996.

However, while the response to Hard Core was overwhelmingly favorable, Lil Kim's salacious lyrics and imagery were not without controversy.

The late politician/activist C. Delores Tucker--who, by 1996, had been railing against gangster rap and the likes of 2Pac for more than three years--would take special umbrage with Hard Core. In May of 1997, on the eve of Hard Core being certified platinum, Tucker would excoriate Lil Kim and the album during a Time Warner shareholders meeting. Chiding the company and its shareholders for "producing this filth," Tucker would demand the album be pulled from shelves, pegging Hard Core as "gangsta porno rap." Kim would later respond to the critiques on a song titled "Rockin' It," rapping "C. Delores T., Screw her, I never knew her," clearly unmoved by the backlash. While Lil Kim may not have had the blessings of political pundits, critics and rap fans embraced her as a personality and a creative.

In his review of Hard Core for Entertainment Weekly, James Bernard wrote "Lil’ Kim raps so frankly about sexual issues, she could make Snoop Doggy Dogg blush. She’s not, however, a gimmicky, potty-mouthed female act. Her riveting stage persona — a woman living amid guns, illegal business, and predatory men — is complex and well-rounded," giving the album a perfect rating. The more subterranean Rap Pages would also wax poetic about Kim and Hard Core, crowning her the "black Madonna" as her brazen and glamorous persona was not unlike the Material Girl. Lil Kim would eventually validate that prediction with her foray into modeling, the fashion industry, and becoming a full blown brand.

Others may have preceded Lil Kim in being a female rapper that unafraid of pushing the sexual envelope, but it would be Kim's mix of personality, sex appeal and impeccable craftsmanship that would make Hard Core the groundbreaking classic that it is. Her career in the wake of the Notorious B.I.G.'s death proved she was more than capable of making waves, with or without a man at her side calling the shots. Hard Core set a blueprint that rappers like Trina, Khia, Jackie-O, Nicki Minaj and others would mimic. And Lil Kim's influence remains evident 20 years later.

 

The 25 Greatest Rap Albums of 1996