In 1992, there wasn't a more controversial megastar than Madonna.
She'd emerged out of the 1980s as part of an exclusive group of uber-icons in mainstream music, (alongside names such as Prince and Michael), and in the early 1990s, she was reveling in her own notorious image. What had initially been flirty bad girl-ism during the Reagan years had now fully mushroomed into a new kind of pop culture provocateur—foreshadowing the similar turns of starlets like early '00s Christina Aguilera or Miley Cyrus circa 2013. And in October 1992, the onetime Material Girl was releasing her most polarizing work yet. Assuming the persona of "Mistress Dita," this wouldn't just be a new album, but a coffee table book featuring photos of explicit depictions of the erotic. It would be simply titled: Sex.
The book would feature the star and her famous acquaintances. Big Daddy Kane and Madonna's paths had initially crossed when Warner Bros set up a photoshoot at a children's hospital for label stars Kane, Madonna and the quartet Color Me Badd. At the event, Madonna kept raving about Kane to the suburban youngsters who were more familiar with the "Like A Virgin" singer than they were the Brooklyn rhymer of Juice Crew fame. Kane was impressed that Madonna knew his lyrics and was championing him to the attendees, and she wound up asking the King Asiatic if he would take part in a photoshoot for her upcoming book.
Kane's boldness as a sex symbol would stand out in any era of Hip-Hop. While there has never been a shortage of rappers eager to be flanked by a bevy of beauties, BDK welcomed the female gaze as much as he indulged in his own libidinous lyrical escapades. He wasn't just here to be a player, he actually wanted to please. And flaunting that sensibility in his music and via his image made him unique, particularly in the machismo-drenched early 1990s rap climate of N.W.A. and Too $hort. And unlike fellow ladies' man rappers like Father MC and Heavy D, Kane also had a certain cache amongst uber-lyricists that made his emcee credibility unimpeachable. He was often mentioned alongside the very best: Rakim, KRS, Slick Rick, etc.; and he remains one of the most celebrated rappers to ever touch a mic.
Madonna knew that much when she tapped him for a racy photoshoot with herself and supermodel Naomi Campbell.
Big Daddy Kane had released his fourth album, Prince Of Darkness, in the fall of 1991, about a year before Madonna's Sex book hit shelves. ...Darkness was carried by R&B-drenched singles like "Groove With It" and "The Lover In You," tracks that sound primed for R&B radio: the former a slice of high energy new jack swing with vocalist Laree Williams on the hook; and the latter a flip of Prince's "Pop Life" that also features Williams delivering the R&B chorus. Such tracks were starting to earn Kane criticism from the harder-than-thou set who believed the BK legend was getting too smooth for his own good.
And a few months prior to ...Darkness, Kane had infamously posed in the pages of Playgirl. Kane's lothario image was starting to become a double-edged sword.
"It would almost be funny if he didn’t take himself so seriously,” Reginald Dennis wrote in The SOURCE back in 1992. “He already had a reputation with the ladies as being a sex symbol, but he didn’t have to cross the bridge into being a Luther Vandross where he’s turning his back on the street.”
Today, Kane's appearance in Madonna's Sex book, (and his early 1990s image as a whole), looks bold and groundbreaking. But at the time, many of his fans didn't know what to make of it all. But he never indicated that it bothered him much. Big Daddy Kane has always known who he is, reflecting back then that "I like breaking ground and exploring new things."
"It was cool," Kane recalled to ROCK THE BELLS. "I think that it was something, early, that Hip-Hop wasn't ready for."
A lot of people outside of Hip-Hop weren't ready, either. Released on Oct. 21, 1992, the Sex book hit shelves alongside the release of Madonna's fifth studio album Erotica, a concept project about sex and seduction that spawned hits like the title track, "Fever" and "Deeper and Deeper." But the reviews for Sex were mixed; the book was eviscerated by The New York Times. Caryn James wrote:
Madonna wants to be the Scheherazade of sex. In this book of writings and photographs, she means to spin erotic tales in letters and stories, to expose her naked body in titillating poses with men or women or both, to entice viewers into a forbidden world of inexhaustible desire. Too bad she comes off like a C.E.O. instead of a sex goddess. Madonna's book is less the display of an erotic imagination than a cliched catalogue of what the middle class—her target audience, after all—is supposed to consider shocking."
The photos depict Kane, Madonna and Campbell in a series of risqué poses, the kind that would surely "break the internet" if they were to go viral today. Once Madonna indicated to Kane that the pics would be explicit, he was all in. Reflecting on the shoot decades later, Kane still makes it obvious that he had a blast.
"I don't look back on it with any regrets," he says. "I had fun. And Madonna was a beautiful person. An amazing sense of humor. And I appreciate her wanting to work with me. Wanting me to be involved with her project."
It's been 30 years since Madonna shook up the world with Sex, and she proves that she's still quite capable of drawing herself into controversy. While reflecting on the book's anniversary via Instagram, the pop icon proclaimed its influence on today's stars like Cardi B and Miley Cyrus.
"Thirty years ago I published a book called S.E.X. in addition to photos of me naked. There were photos of men kissing men, woman [sic] kissing woman, and me kissing everyone," she wrote. "I also wrote about my sexual fantasies and shared my point of view about sexuality in an ironic way."
"I spent the next few years being interviewed by narrow-minded people who tried to shame me for empowering myself as a woman. I was called a whore, a witch, a heretic and the devil. Now Cardi B can sing about her WAP. Kim Kardashian can grace the cover of any magazine with her ass and Miley Cyrus can come in like a wrecking ball. You're welcome bitches......." Madonna added a clown emoji.
The post wasn't well-received by Cardi, who felt like Madonna was taking subliminal shots. "I literally [paid] this woman homage so many times 'cause I grew up listening to her… she can make her point without putting clown emojis and getting slick out the mouth. These icons really become disappointments once [you] make it in the industry. That's why I keep to myself," Cardi wrote on Twitter.
But soon, the "Up" rapper said that she and Madonna cleared the air.
"I talked to Madonna…It was beautiful ….Have a great day and drive safely yallll," she tweeted. Madonna also shared a tweet, writing, "I love you @iamcardib !! Always have and always will."
Decades later, Sex is still a hot topic, and Big Daddy Kane looks back at all of it with a chuckle. It's another moment in a career full of them.
"I had a lot of fun doing it," Kane says, before adding with a smirk: "If I could get rid of this gut, I'd do it again!"