Hard Core – Lil’ Kim (1996)

Hard Core album cover
Hard Core album cover

The so called gansta rap had taken over as the premier rap style in hop hop by the mid ’90s. Cries of “keeping it real” by West Coast rappers implied that the smart edgy raps typical of Tribe Called Quest or the pop buffoonery of Will Smith was selling out rap to white people. They also thought the academic nature of eleeist rap was opening the floodgates for others to dilute the art form.

In response, a gritty new style developed centered around the worst stereotypes of black males in America. It may have started with N.W.A.’s prison stories, but had spread to include imagery from films about Italian gangster culture (Scarface, The Godfather etc.).

The new hard core had become the basis for a kind of misogynistic male posturing that in effect had the unintended effect of becoming the new sound of revolt for a generation of (white) suburban teens. Those teens could care less about who was from where, as long as the language would continue to sink to new levels of audaciousness.

In this war of explicit words, differences between East and West Coast styles would emerge with the West Coast being led by Dr. Dre’s Cronic style off springs and the East Coast with its sample heavy rhymes led by The Notorious Big and others.

In between all the gun waving and crotch grabbing of the male dominated world of hard-core, a few female artist would emerge as the queens of the craft. Among them few stood as tall (or on their back) as Lil’ Kim.

As the ghetto name would imply, Lil’ Kim represented the hardest and most gruff of ganster rap’s impulses towards sex and violence, but with a female touch. Female artist like Adina Howard would open the door between R&B and raunchy, but Lil’ Kim took it to the next level both musically and in her image.

By positioning herself as a (stereotypical) ghetto girl, she flipped the script showing a strong female who was not passive to the posturing of males, but instead would be the one making deals and putting other “hoes” on alert. It was new territory for female rappers who before were just on the edge of being hard (Queen Latifah, MC Lite etc.) or were purely entertainers bordering silly (Salt N Peppa).

Her debut Hard Core was certainly truth in packaging as she posed in a bed room in scanty garments atop a bear rug. All suggestive stuff,but nothing compared to the explicit images her metaphors induced. Part of the shock of Hard Core was that it was coming from a woman. The cussing, man handling and getting paid was enough to earn her the title “Queen Bitch”.

With Diana Ross as a kind of role model of a woman in charge, Lil’ Kim used her sexuality to control those around her and get what she waned. Songs like “Not Tonight” might suggest she was a tease in making her man wait, but others like “Work The Pole” removed all doubt.

Hard Core was backed be a team of producers, DJs and guest appearances that gave it production values on par with the best from other East Coast rappers like Notorious B.I.G or Jay Z. In fact Hard Core ranked as one of the most important of the East Coast hard-core albums in the early evolution of the movement.

Typical of East Coast rap, Hard Core features choice samples woven into the musical fabric. “Not Tonight” for example adds new dimension to catchy songs like George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around”. Much of Hard Core was infectious for this reason. Its three singles placed in the top 40 while the album itself made its debut at #11 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart.

That kind of chart power just added to the East vs West Coast war, as the East had new bragging rights via its rough remake star. Very few female rappers would hold the throne as Queen of hard-core rap, but Lil’ Kim along with Foxy Brown wore the title well.

Hard Core was not only a landmark album for Lil’ Kim, as a collaboration (as most rap albums seem to be) it featured both rising and fading stars. With Da Brat, Left Eye and Missy Elliot, it easy to tell who were the up and coming, but hard Core mixed the best of old school and the new East Coast gangster style effectively with slick production.

Hard Core is most enjoyable through headphones for those who prefer discretion. The depths of rap’s raunchiness may have been reached with this album, but its smart rhymes (often as funny as they are explicit) and clever sampling always bring you back.

This album makes me laugh every time I hear it, not that it’s always funny. While this was in no way the high-end of rap metaphor, it makes much of today’s rap music sound downright childish. The rough yet sophisticated nature of this album is a quality I miss in today’s rap. I don’t know who the Queen Bitch equivalent would be today, but Lil’ Kim wore the title well on her short time on the throne.

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