Welcome to Record Club, a monthly feature in which the Wondering Sound staff spends a week discussing and investigating a single record. This month we’re tackling Lil’ Kim‘s Hard Core, the debut album from the Notorious B.I.G.‘s paramour-protégé and, still, one of the most sexually fearless albums in the genre. That Kim was 22 at the time of its release makes it even bolder. Here, the Wondering Sound staff discusses her upheaval of taboos, the sounds of the ’90s and its influence on rap.
Lobenfeld: I’d like to start this one off on a similar note to the way our Blink-182 conversation started, in which Joe immediately pointed out that Enema of the State had a lot of misogynistic undertones. We did a 180 by choosing Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core. It was an extremely sexually progressive album and is still boundary-pushing. It serves as an antidote to Enema and it also encapsulates exactly what was so frightening and fascinating about women to Blink-182. We have a lot to unpack about objectification, power structures, performance and production, so let’s get into it. As someone who has listened to this album at least once a week for the past 18 years, I’d like to know what everyone’s initial thoughts were, whether it was revisiting it or hearing it for the first time.
Keyes:The first time I heard Hard Core was around the time it came out. I was working in Manhattan on my summers off during college. That was sort of my de facto introduction to hip-hop, about which I knew nothing at that point. The guys I worked with would play it all day. I remember this record being very divisive, with 95 percent of the guys I worked with completely discrediting it — and, by extension, Kim — because of the notion that The Notorious B.I.G. wrote the record. My standout memory of it from that time is: “Whoa, this record is dirty.” Even in the context of the other stuff the guys were playing, Hard Core always seemed even more explicit — which actually probably says a lot about me and my preconceptions at the time.
Revisiting it this last month, I think what stood out for me — which I’d honestly never noticed the first time — was how great Kim’s performance is on this record. It doesn’t really matter who wrote it, really. It’s Kim’s record, 100 percent. I was oblivious to that, no matter how many times I heard it back in ’96.
Hood: I still blush when I am listening to it by myself with headphones on.
Leebove: This was my first time listening to this record! Similarly to Lindsay, my initial thought just from “Intro in A-Minor” was WHOA maybe I shouldn’t be listening to this at work (even with headphones on)! But as totally vulgar as the whole record is, it was also refreshing to hear rap as raunchy as I’ve ever heard coming from a woman’s perspective.
Duncan: I’d never heard this before, either. I listened through a lens of being a big Nicki Minaj fan. I was, like Lindsay and Laura, pretty shocked at the countless ways in which she talked about sex, oral sex specifically. I thought about how Nicki does that but not at all in the same way that Lil’ Kim does. She’s so much more aggressive and her voice and flow is much more masculine. I also was really curious to know what Biggie wrote and what Kim wrote on this album.
Leebove: Joe, do you think it seemed more explicit than other rap because it was coming from a woman, who maybe wasn’t as expected to be saying the stuff on here?
Keyes: I’m ashamed to say that I think that’s exactly what it was for me at the time. I was 21 and my worldview definitely had some shaping up to do. It was really startling to me to hear a lot of this stuff coming from a woman in the mid ’90s, which is not something I’m especially proud of, but there it is.
Lobenfeld: I don’t think you’re alone in that, Joe. It is 2014 and a lot of what Kim raps about on that record is still considered taboo. Until recently, Lil Wayne was one of the only prominent dude-proponents of going down on a woman. We, at least, have Danny Brown, Kevin Gates, Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar now.
Greene: I think it’s important to note that people usually described Lil’ Kim’s lyrics in two ways: “In-your-face raunch” and “potty mouth.” Neither description connotes much sexiness, really, and I think that’s an important distinction. She posed on a bear skin rug in a classic pinup pose on the cover, but her lyrics were looking to shock you more than they were catering to any kind of male gaze. So many people seemed to miss that about Kim, not least of which was the still-nascent mainstream rap-culture commentariat, which kicked into fucking overdrive when Hard Core came out. There were literally dozens of pieces like this one, which clucked sadly that Kim is
“bartering with the world’s oldest currency,” every year from when Hard Core was released to when The Notorious K.I.M. came out, four years later.
Listening to it again, I was mostly struck by how confrontational, even scatological her lyrics were. The dirtiest lyrics on this album are still some of the most dirtiest I’ve ever heard in my life — how about the line about sucking blackberry molasses out of her ass?
— Jayson Greene’
At another point, she mockingly threatens “golden showers.” In a misogynistic venue where going down on a woman was routinely described by male rappers as a sign of weakness, as an accusation, i.e. “I heard he eats the pussy,” Kim is seizing on the threat aspect. Eating pussy isn’t just about female empowerment; it’s about sheer emasculation. She wants to gross you out: If you look at a woman’s vagina and make scared, stupid jokes about “tuna fish” and what not, Kim is here to send you squealing into a dark corner. “You think I’m gross? HERE’S GROSS.” It’s the vagina as bogeyman.
She would do this later — on “Suck my Dick,” from her next album, she threatens to film a man going down on her while he, AND I QUOTE, “sucks the piss out my pussy,” and show the footage to her girls.
Leebove: Yeah, I can’t listen to the line in “No Time,” “Before you nut, I’mma dribble down your butt cheeks/ Make you wiggle, then giggle just a little” without shuddering. Seriously, every time I am just like BLLEECHHHHHHH.
Greene: Right? Not exactly anyone’s idea of Playboy-centerfold pillow talk. Likes: “Walks on the beach, animals, reading and dribbling down your butt cheeks.” Again, though, it feels like a blunt force corrective to stuff like Kool G Rap saying “But 69, and I ain’t with that/ I’ll go to a Chinese restaurant, bitch, if I wanna eat cat.”
Hood: While I understand that there’s a gross-out factor, can we note that there is also the potential for liberation as well? By telling men, “I not only want to be pleasured, but I EXPECT it”?
Leebove: Lindsay, yes definitely! And I think “Not Tonight” is my favorite example of that. Or at least the most overt example.
Lobenfeld: The important follow-up to that lyric, though, to the one about dribbling down butt cheeks is that she will literally fucking kill you if you play her: “Act shady and feel my 3 80.”
Keyes: That’s another great dichotomy on the record, is that the sex songs are counterbalanced by songs in which Kim is the gangster or the assassin.
Lobenfeld: I do want to go back to the blackberry molasses line. I could go on about the “most important part of Hard Core” forever and think of something new every time, but what’s significant about that song is that she took “Just Playin’“, a tongue-in-cheek Biggie one-off about fucking R&B singers, and remade it into something really powerful. While most of it is her playing around, one of the lines that sticks out to me is the one about Tevin Campbell: “Make him an example/ With this pussy sample.” I’m not going to say it’s tantamount to “beat the pussy up” missives, but it’s pretty darn close.
Keyes: “Dreams” also stood out to me way more this time around for exactly that reason. I also feel like R&B at the time, as sung by male vocalists, for as “romantic” as it sounded as also kind of creepily objectifying in its own way. The way she turns the tables and puts the guys — by name — who are singing those songs on the other end of the cannon is fantastic. Also she makes Prince lick her booty.
Even in a really superficial way, she achieves that with the tit-for-tat skits on the album. The first one we get is “Take It,” which is all dudes and all pretty typical of the time. But then we get to “Scheamin’” a few songs later, and it’s like the secret other half of the conversation. The guys were just talking about the girls they were going to try to sleep with, but in “Scheamin’” the ladies are seizing on the power and control aspect of it in a way that I think is really interesting and is almost like an “answer song” to “Take It.”
Duncan: The thing I don’t get is why there aren’t any women on this album. Couldn’t she have featured another female rapper? What about Missy Elliott?
Lobenfeld: The features on this album are strictly family: All Junior M.A.F.I.A., as well as Puffy and Jay, who were Biggie’s best friends. There was talk of Kim and Foxy Brown doing a Thelma & Louise-style album and, at the time, Missy was being used as backup singer and rarely shown in videos because of her weight. But Foxy being missing brings up the palpable tension on “No Time.” When you look back at the record, you can see how much Biggie and Jay Z (who was basically Foxy’s mentor at the time despite having much less fame) were tinkering and taunting each other. Jay raps, “How Big and Un [Lance "Un" Rivera was the owner of Undeas, the label Lil' Kim and Junior M.A.F.I.A. were signed to. Jay Z faced three years probation after pleading guilty to stabbing Un in 1999. — Ed ] trust you in the studio with me/ Don’t they know I’m trying to sex you continuously.” I’ve never for a second thought Jay had game or that he would even dare to mess with Kim like that, so I still bristle at that line because I wonder exactly what he was trying to prove. Was it a jab at Big? Was Jay instructed to write a lyric like that to bolster her sex appeal? I don’t know. But when I am not rolling my eyes at how bad Jay Z is at rapping about sex — “I sell out arenas/ I call that getting dome” — I think about how that lyric must have made Foxy feel. I would imagine, not good.
Hood: It seems like it allowed Kim a bit of a “safety net” so to speak. By being on the album, they were also giving their stamp of approval, which allowed her to enter the circle in the first place. It was strange for me to revisit, though, and realize that every track has a male voice, the album begins with a male voice and they’re constantly interrupted with their own dialogue, just to remind you that they’re still there.
Duncan: Another nod to glass ceiling is when she uses the same sample as Big Daddy Kane on “Big Momma Thing.” It’s another way into this male-dominated world — by paying tribute to this rapper who other dudes in the game already respect. Can we also talk about the overall porn themes?
Greene: Yes, it should not be overlooked that the first thing we hear is the voice of a furtive, mumbling dude entering a very old-fashioned, skeezy Times Square porn theater and taking his seat in the darkness? (Also, holy shit, let’s all just revisit the idea that people used to GATHER TOGETHER IN DARK ROOMS TO MASTURBATE IN PUBLIC. Some serious Roman times vomitorium “They did that!?” vibes there.)
Duncan: From the get-go, I was weirded out by “Intro in A-Minor” because she cast herself as a porn star and gave the dude in that sketch more of a voice than she gives herself. He speaks while she only moans. I didn’t get why he got to command her, “Work it, bitch!” when on the rest of the album she’s in such a place of power.
Keyes: I actually feel like the dude in that skit comes across pretty pathetic. He’s using popcorn butter to masturbate, the woman who sells him the ticket clearly disdains him, and Kim throughout is completely, literally untouchable. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but when I heard that again, I found the caricature of the skeevy dude was a pretty effective two-minute dismantling.
Hood: True, but let’s not forget that this is still objectification. It’s her touchstone to say, “If you’re going to objectify me, then let’s take this all the way and I’m going to get something for it.” Still not the greatest starting point.
Greene: But it also acknowledges the grossness and seediness of the exchange! It’s graphic and repulsive and lonely and sad. It make selling sex sound about as glamorous as Raekwon makes selling crack sound — i.e. not very. The message in both is “I’m really good at this, but you might not enjoy doing it. This is just how I made it.”
Hood: I’m not disagreeing. One of the main elements of Hard Core that really hit home for me was that it’s not precious or careful with sexuality. It acknowledges that sex is often an exchange of power.
Lobenfeld: The whole album is about exchange of power, whether it’s sexual power or rap’s longstanding male domination. Even if Kim is presenting as an object at the beginning of the album, be it that skit or comparing herself to Heather Hunter, she increasingly absorbs the power position as the album plays out. I think “Not Tonight” is the best illustration of this and just because the hook is about forgoing regular sex for oral. The second verse still blows my mind.
Greene: The fondness in that song is just as important as the graphic demands. When she teases a conquest about being lousy in bed, she says “he laughed” and you can hear laughter in her voice, too. The moment makes them like close friends, honestly, and it feels like an exchange between sexual equals. A lot of people, and commentators, (including us so far!) have fixated on the sex as power exchange in Hard Core, and for sure, that’s part of it. But sex is also a fact of life, something that might be shared between friends, something that could start serious and fade into a fond joke.
Lobenfeld: Perhaps, but I find nothing friendly about the rest of that verse: “I’ll pass/ The dick was trash/ If sex was record sales you would be double glass.”
Hood: Agreed. She might be striving for equality, but it’s not being given to her. There’s playfulness here, but I didn’t read it as friendly.
Duncan: It’s similar in the way she reclaims the Barbie later on in her career, in “The Jump Off,” where she calls herself the Black Barbie. (Which of course, Nicki went on to claim in a big way.) Also can we talk about how in her 2000 Vibe cover story — called “Blowin’ Up” — she’s styled to look like a blow-up doll in one of the photos? Literally changing her into an object. Calling yourself a Barbie is bragging, indicating your perfection, but it also indicates your lack of control or humanness. You’re just an object for people to use.
Keyes: We should talk about “We Don’t Need It.” It kind of “It’s a Man’s World” from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, where Ice Cube and Yo-Yo have a similar kind of see-saw situation. That kind of structure is also, more or less, what’s happening on “Love Again” on Run the Jewels 2.
Hood: When I was listening to “Love Again” all I could think was, “This song would never have existed without ‘We Don’t Need It.’”
Leebove: I can’t tell if the end result of “We Don’t Need It” is that both sides get what they want or no one gets any. After Cease raps the last line, “Don’t ask Kim for a date/ she want her pussy ate,” there’s this maniacal laughter, like maybe her demands aren’t being taken seriously? This made me think about “Love Again” too, but with that it song seems more like both sides are more respected (after all, El-P is saying “Oh my god, I love this chick/ I must put my tongue in this,” so he’s into it).
Greene: We also need to talk about Kim’s line “Who, me? Forced to use Plan B?” on “We Don’t Need It.” The song feels like a litany of reasons not to have conventional sex.
Lobenfeld: I am not sure if that’s enthusiasm so much as it is lack of interest in unsatisfying sex. Kicking someone out of bed to have sex with yourself is pretty sad. A lot of this album is about being disappointed by bad sex. I wonder how much of that was at the hand of Big wanting to project his own sexual prowess with her as the vessel.
Greene: That’s a fascinating notion, Claire. She always credited him with persuading her to “go all the way with my sexuality.” She actually starts the album by crediting him with basically saving her life, the same way that, say, Eminem paid tribute to Dre. “Before I caught some n***a’s disease, got caught with his ki’s/ Big scooped a young bitch off her knees.” Her first lyrics on the record are also a direct quote of Biggie’s flow on “The What:” “I used to get feels on a bitch/ Now I throw shields on the dick/ To stop me from that HIV shit.”
— J. Edward Keyes’
Big’s presence on this record is just titanic, really, and just a constant reminder that accusations that she wasn’t her own artist or person have dogged and shadowed Kim forever. She said something about this on her second record, which she called The Notorious K.I.M.: “My n***a gone now, so who’s writing my rhymes?” She was apprised with pretty fierce skepticism from the jump, as was Foxy, in a way that Lauryn Hill and Missy, who were around at the same time, just weren’t. Hill, without fail, was called “regal,” whereas all kinds of words were hurled at Kim — “ghetto-fabulous” was one of the kinder ones.
Keyes: There’s this really interesting paradox going on — and I could be very wrong on this, I’m typing it very cautiously — where you’ve got on one side Biggie potentially personally creating a sort of “ideal woman” persona through the lyrics, but then the flip side of that is Kim fucking owning it and kind of blowing that idea up through her performance. That didn’t come out quite as elegantly as I intended, but I feel like there’s a degree to which that’s going on.
I want to talk about the production for a second. Because I love the way it sounds. It’s perched right at that moment where the kind of dusty, Golden Age sample-driven sound was giving way to synthetic recreations of the same. I’ve been listening to Wu-Tang Forever a lot again lately, which I think came out about a year later, and it’s the same vibe.
Lobenfeld: There is a lot of talk about Dr. Dre being brilliant for sampling “Bumpy’s Lament” for “Xplosive” but “Drugs” (which is, in my opinion at this moment of the conversation, the best song on the album) was first.
Greene: Yeah, It was that moment where grittiness was just being overtaken by silkiness, and it was sort of the arc of Puffy’s career: He was careful not to leap too far into the VIP lounge too quickly, and always balanced his “Big Poppa” lounge vibes with careful doses of sharp, blunt violence and cinematic “street reality” tales. This album is my favorite moment along that axis: We hadn’t gotten to the Bill Conti samples and string orchestras of No Way Out, but you could hear it in this record — everything felt and sounded expensive, in a nice comfortable high-thread count way. Even the hard-knocking, dank-cellar beats, like “Fuck You,” “Queen Bitch” and “Drugs” have a tactile, scrubbed-clean feel to them. There’s a reason that Clipse jacked not one, but two beats from this album for their legendary We Got It 4 Cheap series (“Queen Bitch” on Vol. 1 and “Drugs” on Vol. 2) — they are still two of the coldest beats in history.
Hood: I thought the recurring piano definitely added to that feeling of luxury that you’re talking about, Jayson.
Keyes: Speaking of Puffy: “No Time” was a good reminder that I never liked him as a rapper, ever. But Kim’s delivery on this record throughout is just incredible. The way she scoops the all vowels out and basically makes a hammock out of them that she can lean into floors me every time. Rhyming “Zinfandel” with “Chippendales” on “Queen Bitch,” and the way she delivers it, is one of my many favorite moments on the record.
Greene: How about the fucking ill off-key singing she does on “Queen Bitch” during that trumpet solo? It’s one of the most evil sounds on the record, like a nursery rhyme gone sour. She was a very intuitive musician, and there were a lot of small decisions like that on the record — the way she elides “it felt fine” with “griiind it” on “Not Tonight” is really sly and vivid.
Lobenfeld: That entire run starting with the Zinfandel/Chippendales couplet is pretty intense. You can hear how hard she is rapping. She never takes a breath. I could understand why that would be someone’s favorite on the album. After spending time with the album, what is everyone’s favorite track? I said “Drugs” earlier, but, like I said, I waffle. The skit in the beginning of “Dreams” where every girl hanging out agrees that D’Angelo is the one is a little too real. But I stick with “Not Tonight” because of its narrative precision and the brutal real talk: “But limp dick n***as that’s frontin’ like willy?/ Suck my pussy ’till they kill me, you feel me?” She’s not even demanding oral sex here, she’s inverting “suck my dick” as an insult. I also love the idea that Big understood the concept of a “four stroke creep.” He was probably really good at girl talk.
Hood: Biggie definitely understood the danger of subpar D. It’s really hard not to love the opening line of “Big Momma Thing,” but I think that I am going to have to go with “We Don’t Need It.” (Click the booty, click the booty.)
Duncan: My favorite is probably “Spend a Little Doe.” Maybe because that chorus is just so sick. I think I just love that narrative of her tricking this dude who’s clearly a scumbag and trying to save his ass over not visiting her in prison. That line, “You got stuck and left naked with a hard penis.” Dang. Plus there are no dudes on that one, and I generally prefer listening to female voices more than male. But I also I really love the call-and-response chorus of “We Don’t Need It.” (“If you ain’t lickin’ no butts” is too great.)
Leebove: Totally agree with Tess on “Spend a Little Doe,” but, ultimately, I think I have to go with “Not Tonight”! So much woman power and being shameless in saying what you want and presumably getting it.
Keyes: Gotta be honest: Favorite song is probably “We Don’t Need It.”
Greene: Yeah, it’s probably not the most surprising decision, but: “Not Tonight.” Besides basically giving the album its most-quoted lines, it also shows so much of what Kim was good at, including her ear for storytelling details (“Had a weed spot, used to pump African Black/ He used to seal his bag so his workers wouldn’t tap/ I used to see him in The Tunnel with fuckers at dawn.” The chorus is the manifesto, but the verses are a series of short stories. I honestly think, revisiting it, that it might be one of my favorite 10 or so rap songs ever.