In the fall of 1996, Hip-Hop was reeling but also thriving. The murder of Tupac Shakur had sent shockwaves through the industry and culture; the infamous Death Row rapper was gunned down in September 1996. The much-hyped East Coast/West Coast beef had dominated headlines for a year, and 2Pac's death felt like a morbid exclamation point at the end of a bitterly tragic sentence. At the same time, Hip-Hop was more high profile than ever; artists like The Fugees and Bone Thugs N Harmony were enjoying major crossover success; Nas had suddenly made the leap from boom-bap upstart to mainstream mafioso rap star, Busta Rhymes finally dropped his solo debut and announced himself as a major figure. And a Brooklyn emcee named Jay-Z was making some waves with his debut album.
And the whole world was waiting for Lil Kim.
Kimberly Jones made her unofficial debut on The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die in 1994 and her official debut as a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A. on their 1995 album Conspiracy. Junior M.A.F.I.A. hinted at what Kim could become; she was bold and brash, sexy in a way that evoked a gun-toting queen-pin one second or a lingerie-wearing sex goddess the next. After hit singles like "Players Anthem" and "Get Money" with Junior M.A.F.I.A., Kim was primed to become a breakout star. She'd been B.I.G.'s on-and-off girlfriend since their days as teens in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn; and Biggie was committed to shepherding Kim's rise. They'd both lived on St. James Place and after he landed a deal with Sean "Puffy" Combs at Uptown, B.I.G. began scouting his neighborhood for talent. He brought in Kim to Junior M.A.F.I.A. after hearing her rap and believing she could be shaped into a star.
And she had the total package. She had all of the elements to become a major star: a high-profile machine behind her, a high fashion sense, and a brazen sexuality. It had been there when Junior M.A.F.I.A. dropped the video for "Get Money" in early 1996. The song featured Biggie and Kim, and the video was Lil Kim in all of her "Queen Bee" glory; rocking designer fits while rapping about counting millions while having men go down on her. The video featured cameos from everyone from Vanessa Del Rio to Salt-N-Pepa, an early indicator of how Kim asserted herself at the top of urban pop culture from the moment she arrived.
Landing her deal on Lance "Un" Rivera's Undeas label, Biggie and his Bad Boy Records crew set to work on Kim's album. But Biggie and Kim's personal relationship got rocky when he married Bad Boy Records artist Faith Evans, just two weeks after they met at a photo shoot.
Lil Kim's debut would feature stellar, slick production from Puff Daddy and his Hitmen, Jermaine Dupri and Ski; and Kim's ad campaign was one for the ages. A provocative poster--Kim in a fur coat, rocking a bikini, legs spread--became one of the most indelible photos in music history and pop culture. She announced herself as a star unlike any we'd seen in Hip-Hop, and in doing so, set a mold that would reverberate over the next 25 years. She shared in 2019 that it was Biggie who'd picked the infamous poster.
“Biggie was always at all of my photoshoots, like he picked the Hard Core poster,” she explained. “I naturally did the pose, but I did a bunch of poses and he was like, ‘That’s the one.’ The record company was like, ‘Are you sure about this?’ He was like, ‘Hell yeah, put that bitch on a poster. Stop playing.’ I’m not even joking. He was just my guy for everything. Not that I didn’t know him, but I was just scared to make a move because I didn’t want to make the wrong move, so he did everything.”
The shadow of Biggie has always loomed large over Hard Core. In the decades since, Lil Kim has had to push back against the perception that the late Christopher Wallace was her svengali, that she was just a creation. His hand as producer and sometimes ghostwriter on songs like the anthemic "Queen Bitch" means that he will always have a major part in the album's legacy, but Kim's charisma, persona and talent are evident on her debut album. She was no puppet and no prefabricated phenomenon. On tracks like "Spend A Little Doe," "Big Momma Thang" and influential "Dreams," its Kim's panache that shines.
The single "No Time" featured Puff, and dropped as the album's first single in August 1996. The video, featuring Kim and Puff rapping on escalators in the World Trade Center, was in steady rotation across MTV and BET; and "No Time" shot all the way to No. 1 on the US Rap Songs chart and No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It's a bit revisionist to suggest that female sexuality was nonexistent before Hard Core. Over the course of their career, Salt-N-Pepa had gone from booty-shaking round-the-way girls in 1987 to Dolce & Gabbana-rocking pop sex kittens circa 1995; West Coast emcee Smooth, after a bit of a false start in the early 90s, rebranded herself as "The Female Mac," armed with daisy duke shorts and a more in-your-face sexuality. Oaktown's 357, MC Hammer's one-time dancers, scored a rap hit with "Juicy Gotcha Krazy," a song about their...well..."juicy." And, of course, there had been forgettable rap novelty acts like the raunch-obsessed, N.W.A.-referencing H.W.A. (Hoes With Attitudes.)
But Kim was something else. Salt-N-Pepa had the sales but didn't have the street cred; Smooth had the sex appeal, but didn't have the commercial appeal. Lil Kim had all of the above and a Biggie co-sign. Before Hard Core, the general assumption was that women in Hip-Hop couldn't sell. Even major names like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah had struggled to move major album units: Lyte never had a gold-selling album. But there were signs that times were changing: Latifah became the first solo female rap artist to go gold with 1993s Black Reign and Da Brat became the first solo female rapper to go platinum just six months later with her 1994 debut Funkdafied. Also during that time, Salt-N-Pepa (who'd enjoyed platinum sales since their 1987 debut Hot, Cool & Vicious) released what is still the best-selling rap album by a female act, the 5X platinum Very Necessary.
The album track "Crush On You" was intended to be a showcase for Kim's Junior M.A.F.I.A. cohort Lil Cease. On Hard Core, he's the only rapper featured on the song, and Harlem rhymer Cam'ron shared that he was asked to ghostwrite the track for Cease. “What happened was, [Untertainment CEO Lance] Un [Rivera] gave [Bad Boy rapper] Ma$e $30,000 to write five songs for Lil’ Cease at that time and Ma$e gave me $5,000 of the 30 to write one or two of the songs. I wrote the ‘Crush on You’ song and they ended up keeping it for Lil’ Kim album but it was really for Lil’ Cease. The original ‘Crush on You’ is all Lil’ Cease, Lil’ Kim isn’t even on the record.”
But the track was picked to be Hard Core's second single, with Biggie on the hook and Kim verses were prominently added. Produced by Andraeo Heard and featuring a sample of "Rain Dance" by The Jeff Lorber Fusion, "Crush On You" would also have a memorable music video, featuring Kim and Cease decked out in stylish primary colors. It's one of the most popular Hip-Hop videos of the 1990s and made Lil Kim an MTV fixture.
Lil' Kim is what I use to get money—a character I use to sell my records."
- Lil Kim, Washington Post interview (2000)
She also added in that Washington Post interview: "Most of the things that I talk about [in my lyrics], yeah, they're true." In the song "Hold On," for example, "I talk about the pain of being pregnant and having an abortion. I talk about the things that women have gone through that they don't think I've gone through. Like fightin' with your man or losin' a man to death. Being alone. I talk about just bein' in the streets having no money and having to do illegal things to get the money."
The remix video for the Hard Core track "Not Tonight" reimagined it as an all-female posse cut, with Angie Martinez, Left Eye of TLC, Missy Elliott and Da Brat joining Kim over a sample of Kool & The Gang's party anthem "Ladies Night." The video, with cameos from Queen Latifah, SWV and Mary J. Blige helped affirm Kim as Hip-Hop's "Queen Bee." With only one album under her belt, Lil Kim had laid claim to the throne. It was a new era.
Kim's high glamour, sex appeal and commercial success made her a new standard for female rappers. Similarly to Jay-Z, she became a signifier for a certain kind of consumerist affluence, launching a wave of "bad bitch" rappers in her wake. The "Lil Kim" type became the go-to reference for mainstream rap labels and crews; as Kim opened the floodgates for generations of women who liked designer shoes, weren't afraid of the dope game or the strip club. Her success was polarizing, as critics bemoaned how far and wide her influence stretched, and fans praised how she set a new bar for women in rap and female sexuality.
"I'm a feminist because I love women," she told the Washington Post. "And I feel like, in this rapping game, men have been bashing women for years. But some women overemphasize that feminism word. And some of them are very male-bashing. I'm not a male basher."
It goes without saying that Lil Kim's Hard Core was a watershed moment in Hip-Hop. Sexy as hell. Street as fuck. Over the next 25 years, Kim's persona and approach from her first album would be emulated and referenced by countless artists across genres. From Trina and Gangsta Boo, to Nicki Minaj to Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and City Girls--they're all descended from and indebted to the Queen Bee's image and aesthetic. Kim is one of the most influential artists in contemporary music and Hard Core a seminal statement of who she is as a persona. That so many used her template--and the fact that the industry was so eager to rehash and hyper-commodify that formula--says a lot about how the industry values women in Hip-Hop. Kim threw down a hammer for female sexuality on her debut album. It shook up the world.