The first thing you hear on Lil Kim’s debut album Hard Core is some limp dick paying $10 to see her movie. “Can I get a small order of popcorn and a large order of butter?” he sputters. “Just like…a lot of napkins, please.” Next thing you know, the poor schmuck is beating his meat to Kim in the theater, and for a good 55 seconds all we hear is his slimy effort. But he never gets to bust; just as he’s about to reach climax (“Yeah work it bitch”) Kim cuts him off, and so begins an album that would help change the role of women in hip-hop forever.
Lil Kim’s Hard Core was by far one of the best Bad Boy albums to ever come out. It didn’t drop on Puff’s label but it had his fingerprints all over it, with production from The Hitmen and features from Puff, Big and Lil’ Cease. Plagued with rumors that Biggie was writing her rhymes, Kim nonetheless became a major figure in hip-hop and emerged victorious with an album that still sounds fresh 19 years later.
Perhaps the album’s greatest accomplishment, however, was in helping to mock, unsettle, and take advantage of the overly male-dominated sphere of hip-hop. Her opening lines – “I used to be scared of the dick, now I throw lips to the shit, handle it like a real bitch” – have become some of the most memorable in hip-hop history, subversively winking at the patriarchy while sucking it off at the same time. She wasn’t the first female MC to embrace her sexuality as her main selling point (Hoes With Attitude put out two albums before her – Livin’ In a Hoe House in ’90 and Az Much Ass Azz U Want in ‘94) but she was the first to make it completely stylish and chic. Lady of Rage and Gangsta Boo were harder, grittier rappers. Kim was elegant and classy about it. Name-dropping Prada and Versace helped further her image as a woman throwing money at men, not the other way around. She even turned a seemingly sexual encounter into a robbery on “Spend A Little Doe” – “They got to see this, oh they wouldn’t believe this, you got stuck and left naked with a hard penis.” It was the perfect metaphor for Lil Kim’s vehicle. Hip-hop was her undercover heist.
Kim’s life wasn’t always so pretty. Her parents divorced when she was nine and her father, who she allegedly once stabbed with a pair of scissors, kicked her out of the house when she was a teen. Soon after, as the story goes, she met fellow Brooklynite Biggie and freestyled for him, securing her place in the Bad Boy crew. But even in the midst of trying to elevate women in hip-hop, she had to step on one, as she continuously dissed Faith Evans both on Hard Core and in press for the album. “I don’t get along with her,” Kim told The Source about Evans in ’96. “I don’t like her.” She couldn’t pull herself up without pushing someone else down, though she did say she still loved Faith’s music in the same interview.
In essence, Kim helped popularize the idea of sexual freedom for female rappers. Rarely was it something flaunted so constantly as a defining trait, and Kim made it enough of an issue to grab the attention of C. Delores Tucker, who MTV called the “morality in music crusader.” “Shame on our family for producing this filth,” Tucker told Time Warner stockholders at an annual meeting in ’97 after reading aloud lyrics from Hard Core. According to Tucker, Kim’s music helped contribute to the “moral corruption” of black men and women in America. When asked what he thought of the remarks, Ted Turner, founder of Turner broadcasting and then vice chairman of Time Warner, said, “I thought she’s got a good point, personally.”
And then there was the poster. There is perhaps no more iconic image of ‘90s rap than Lil Kim’s inviting, open-legged squat on a promo poster for the album. She’s staring right at the camera with an inescapable gaze, as if to say, quite simply, “I control you.” Just like “Dreams” functioned to turn the lustful gaze towards R&B men, so the poster gave Kim a calm sense of power. It drove men crazy and instantly solidified her position as a star in a visceral way.
Two years before Hard Core, Kim’s lover Biggie Smalls had not one, but two sex skits on his debut album. Lil’ Kim flipped the script and forced a guy to jerk off to her instead. She pushed back against the narrative of women as mindless objects and used sex, the easiest thing in the world to sell, as a cover for her excellent skills on the mic. She even relegated Biggie, one of the biggest rappers in the world at the time, to a hook and some adlibs on the album. Today her influence is clear as day, and even Kim still attaches her career to that era. Whether it was demanding oral sex or paying off men to go away, Hard Core helped pave the way for female MCs who came after and still stands the test of time as a tried and true rap classic.