It can be argued whether 1996 is the greatest calendar year in hip-hop history, but what cannot be debated is its distinction as the most blockbuster year in rap history. From tenured legends to talented upstarts, it seemed as if a new classic album, artist, personality, or one-hit-wonder was being introduced to the rap populist daily, but one of the most lasting occurrences of 1996 was the rise of the female rap star. Women in rap were far from an anomaly, with early acts like The Sequence and Roxanne Shante having already led the charge during the early ’80s, and golden era acts like MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, and others making their own contributions to hip-hop culture and the music which drives it. The early ’90s would continue to spawn more ladies rocking the mic, but 1996 would see a changing of the guard with Lil Kim’s arrival and debut release of Hard Core.
By the time 1996 rolled around, rap fanatics were already familiar with Lil Kim’s charismatic nature. She made her first appearance on Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, and emerged as the breakout star of the deceased Brooklyn heavy collective, Junior M.A.F.I.A., via electric performances on singles “Player’s Anthem” and “Get Money.” However, Hard Core‘s release in November of that year would serve as her official coronation as rap’s new queen pin, not to mention one of its more endearing stars, despite gender. Led by the hit singles “No Time” and “Crush On You,” as well as the star-studded remix to her album cut, “Not Tonight,” Hard Core peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 and was certified double platinum by the RIAA, with more than 5 million copies sold worldwide, making it the most successful release from a female rapper at the time.
Lil Kim’s career would continue to blossom after its release, as she would ascend to icon status within the course of a decade. Hard Core remains her magnum opus and a definitive body of work. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, we dissected the album and ranked the songs from the least impressive to the most undeniable.
Where does your favorite track land?
First appearing on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s 1995 debut, Conspiracy, group members Trife and Larceny back up the First Lady of their clique on Hard Core‘s final track, “F**k You.” Produced by Chris “Cornbread” Cresco, the song includes a verse by Lil Kim – who gets off clever lines like “The Anne Klein sporting coke, snorting niggas lovely/I keep my pu**y Fresh like Doug E.; watch the show” – sandwiched in between stanzas from Trife and Larceny, the latter of whom delivers an interesting 16 of his own that certainly creates cause to pause. One of the more strenuous listens on Hard Core, “F**k You” is a stark contrast from the other tracks on the album.
10. M.A.F.I.A. Land
A vivid tale of criminality gets spun on “M.A.F.I.A. Land,” a brooding number that sees Lil Kim playing the role of a femme fatale that rises in the ranks of her crime bosses faction. Breaking down her position within the family with the lines “Where life’s initiated, ain’t no givin’ it back/Once you in it, like Bennett, you’ll soon be lieutenant/Like me, the Don Juan, that’s Yvonne/The sweat-a the money getter, coppin’ mad Jettas,” Kim details shootouts, drug deals gone bad, and lost casualties of war with the precision of a seasoned wordsmith. Produced by Faraoh, “M.A.F.I.A. Land” is a praiseworthy display of storytelling and a testament to Lil Kim’s ability to deliver focused, conceptual cuts with a more racy fare.
Few things are worse than a woman scorned and Lil Kim lends credence to this truth on the Hard Core standout, “Spend a Little Doe.” Opening with a brief skit in which Kim confronts a lover about his lack of financial and emotional support during her three-year prison sentence, the Brooklyn diva has a score to settle and proceeds to vent her frustrations and disappointments before exacting revenge on her unloyal partner in crime. Produced by Ski Beatz, who utilizes snazzy piano to do his bidding, “Spend a Little Doe” is a solid offering that shows Lil Kim in a rare state.
“How you spell cash? C’s and some hash/At last, a nigga kickin’ game full blast,” Lil’ Cease raps on the Hard Core posse cut, “We Don’t Need It,” which also sees Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Trife matching wits with Lil Kim. Lil’ Cease bats lead-off with a serviceable 16 but is bested by his sister in rhyme, who lays down a stellar string of couplets of her own, with Trife rounding out the proceedings. Featuring an infectious call-and-response chorus, “We Don’t Need It,” which was originally included on the soundtrack for the 1996 flick Sunset Park, is an entertaining battle of the sexes that serves as one of the sleeper cuts on Hard Core.
Taking a page out of the book of Christopher Wallace, who once infamously shared his “dreams of fucking an R&B bitch,” Lil Kim crafts a cut dedicated to the R&B stars she lusts for in the form of the Hard Core tune, “Dreams.” Produced by Prestige – who makes use of a rollicking electric guitar and kicks and snares for his boardsmanship – “Dreams” includes mentions of everyone from R. Kelly, D’Angelo, and Case, as well as Prince, who gets a private invitation to partake in the Queen Bee’s groceries.
6. Crush On You
The casual fan may be more familiar with the radio version of Lil Kim’s classic single “Crush On You,” on which she rhymes on the song’s second and third verse. But after not being able to record her verses before the debut album release, Hard Core was submitted with a version featuring Lil’ Cease. While that may have been a bummer to many fans expecting to hear the Queen Bee after copping the CD or cassette, Lil’ Cease is able to hold down the fort, accounting for Kim’s missing portions with bars of his own that display his charisma and presence.
One of the records in Lil Kim’s catalog that remains criminally underrated is the Hard Core album cut, “Drugs,” a cut that sees the Brooklyn china doll minimizing the dirty talk and getting gutter with the flow. Produced by Fabian Hamilton – who hooks up a sample of Soul Mann & The Brothers Shaft contribution “Bumpy’s Lament” – “Drugs” includes an appearance from The Notorious B.I.G., who tackles the hook duties in admirable fashion, resulting in a duet of sorts between the mentor and the mentee.
4. Not Tonight
Hardcore gets the So So Def treatment, as Lil Kim links up with Jermaine Dupri for “Not Tonight,” one of the album’s finest – and raunchiest – offerings. With J.D. lacing the beat, which features elements of George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around,” Lil Kim proceeds to admonish and chide lackluster lovers, demanding that they perform cunnilingus to compensate for their subpar sexual prowess. Giving multiple accounts of feeling unsatisfied and in need of stimulation, Lil Kim flips the tables on the men who covet her sexually by becoming the aggressor and dominant figure in her encounters with men, making for a classic tune for the general rap fan, and an empowering record for the ladies.
“I used to be scared of the dick/Now I throw lips to the shit, handle it like a real bitch,” Lil Kim shamelessly admits on “Big Momma Thang,” Hard Core‘s explosive opening selection. Produced by Stretch Armstrong of the legendary underground rap radio show Stretch & Bobbito, “Big Momma Thang” is one of the most instant songs from the album aside from its singles, if only for those iconic opening bars by Lil Kim that shocked the world. Featuring a pre-fame Jay Z, who jokingly attempts to put the charm on Kim asking, “How B.I.G. and ‘Un’ trust you in the studio with me/Don’t they know I’m tryin’ to sex you continuously,” and threatening to “Pull a high power Coup make you jump ship/Leave who you wit’, I’m with the Roc-A-Fella crew.” “Big Momma Thang” sees the rap game’s Pam Grier making an entrance of her own design, effectively kicking off one of the greatest long players of the mid-’90s.
2. No Time
In October of 1996, weeks before the release of her solo debut album, Hard Core, Lil Kim unveiled the LP’s Puff Daddy assisted lead single, “No Time,” which saw Kim officially step out on her own, fully commanding the spotlight in the process. Puffy, who provides the brash hook declaring “I got, no time for fake ni**as/Just sip some Cristal with these real ni**as/From East to West coast spread love ni**as/And while you niggas talk sh** we count bank figures” plays hypeman as Lil Kim basks in all of her glory throughout the three verses. Rapping “I Momma, Miss Ivana/Usually rock the Prada, sometimes Gabbana/Stick you for your cream and your riches/Zsa Zsa Gabor, Demi Moore, Prince Diane and all them rich bitches,” the Queen Bee left little question as to who was next in line to wear the crown of rap’s “it” girl, a title she would defend throughout the subsequent decade. Peaking atop Billboard’s US Rap Songs chart and at No. 9 on the Hot 100, “No Time” was a smash hit and has gone on to become one of the definitive recordings of her career.
1. Queen Bi**h
Hard Core may be arguably regarded as the most influential rap album by a woman in the history of the genre largely for its liberating subject matter, but what actually makes the album a certified classic is the superior lyricism displayed on it. The album’s most riveting selection, “Queen Bi**h,” sends this sentiment home, as Kim flexes all over the Carlos “6 July” Broady and Nashiem Myrick co-produced soundscape masterpiece. Spitting “If Peter Piper pecked em, I bet you Biggie bust em/He probably tried to f**k him, I told him not to trust him/Lyrically I dust em off like Pledge/Hit hard like sledge-hammers, bi**h with that platinum grammar,” Lil Kim sets it off, navigating nimbly over a sample of Roberta Flack’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” while The Notorious B.I.G. provides reinforcement and drops a few bars of his own. Addictive enough for R&B singer Mary J. Blige to sample the track for her Lil Kim-assisted hit single, “I Can Love You,” “Queen Bi**h” stands as Hard Core‘s shining moment and the definitive deep cut in the Queen Bee’s catalog.