Hard Core was the first time the male gaze was turned around, even for a moment, in pop rap.
To call the sexual politics of popular rap in the early- to mid-‘90s “problematic” would be a generous understatement. In the context of today’s cultural progressivism, the music that was coming out of New York City and California, the anthems that were captivating the imagination and the dollars of a new-to-rap audiences are so antiquated that they’ve moved beyond offense and into a realm of ignorant harmlessness.
While it’s true that there were a number of artists pushing forward a feminist message of sorts in that same era (Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest), the music that held sway in the pop world, gangster rap, trafficked in sexism and vulgarity as much as it did crime and oppression. Even removed from rap’s cornball sex-rap apex—which is pretty much anything 2 Live Crew put out in the late ‘80s—landmark records like Warren G’s Regulate…G-Funk Era.
It would be false to say that Lil’ Kim’s debut album, Hard Core, turned the tide against misogyny in ‘90s rap, but she did shift the perspective in a way that it had never been done before. Kim moved women in rap from passive to assertive. She reacted to the hyper-sexuality of the culture and flipped it in such a way that it reflected that attitude back on itself, as if to say “you want a sex object? Here’s your worst nightmare.” Never before, and perhaps never again, has one woman been as joyfully filthy, demanding, aggressive and dismissive about the act of lovemaking. It’s one thing to talk about sex, it’s another thing entirely to bully people into it.
Hard Core was the first time that male gaze was turned around, even for a moment, in pop rap.
For a record that is positioned to be a groundbreaking work of feminism, it’s shocking how little run time Lil’ Kim actually gets on the record. Hard Core runs through 15 songs in 52 minutes. Remove the album’s skits and it’s down to 11. Of those 11 songs, seven feature another rapper in some capacity. On one of the album’s highlights, “We Don’t Need It,” Kim is underused to such an extent that she feels like a feature artist appearing on someone else’s song (Lil Cease gets two verses, Kim gets 18 bars). On one of the album’s biggest singles, “Crush On You,” runs for nearly 90 seconds before Kim even says a word. It’s hard to blame anyone for being outshined by Notorious B.I.G, who shows up on three songs, but for his slight contributions to be the most memorable (he only ever sings the hook), is damning of Kim’s abilities as a star, at least in this early stage in her career.
There are commercial reasons for Kim’s first record to be so heavily assisted; she was still something of an unknown commodity in the rap world, appearing as part of the Biggie-lead Junior M.A.F.I.A, and pushing Notorious B.I.G in your music is as wise a decision now as it was in 1996. But even when not appearing on the track, Kim finds ways to make the album all about her. The content of the songs is almost uniformly about sexual desire. More specifically, about a desire to have sex with Lil’ Kim. All the album’s guests are coming to her world, on her terms, to determine their worth for her. This is highlighted in the album’s first skit in which a nameless dude buys a ticket to see Lil’ Kim’s fictional porn movie (which shares the same title with the album and proceeds to use popcorn butter in a way that Regal Cinema never intended.
When Kim does show up, she makes the most of it. She’s a great, if not original rapper. A lot of her flows feel borrowed from Biggie, which, again, is no crime considering the era and his tutelage. No, what really makes Hard Core impressive 20 years later is how comfortable and powerful she is in her demands to be fucked harder, better, longer. This is not a woman with time for anything less than a complete and fully realized sexual experience (an excerpt from “Big Momma Thang”: “That’s how many times I wanna cum/ 21/ And another one/ And another one/ And another one”). Tracks like “Queen Bitch” and “We Don’t Need It” sound like confident dares. Kim is saying “I know what you think of women, and I know you’re all talk.”
It’s fair to wonder what Lil Kim’s legacy really looks like in 2016. The knee-jerk reaction is to paint her as a pioneer and a trailblazer; the first female rapper who could stand toe-to-toe with her male counterparts on the national stage, the first female rapper to treat sexuality as brazenly and aggressively as any male routinely did while maintaining her agency. That mantle is rightfully hers, but if she was as important as these accolades suggest, what does it say about her impact that 20 years later there’s only one female rapper of any prominence to follow directly in her footsteps? What does it say that her most successful commercial and cultural gambits come bundled with another male feature on the track? If Lil Kim opened doors the way she is commonly thought of doing, why haven’t more people walked through it?
Whether it speaks to the barriers that still exist for women in music, the taboos that are being broken down around female sexuality, or the possible reality that Kim’s impact isn’t long lasting because her career wasn’t is impossible to say. What one can be sure of is that, 20 years after the fact, Hard Core still sounds like a shot across the bow of gender stereotypes in a style of music that remains the pinnacle two decades later.