[In each installment of Record Club, our editors take a month-long dive into an album we care about, culminating in an in-depth discussion and other supplementary features. This month's record is Lil' Kim's taboo-smashing debut Hard Core. Read our editors' roundtable here, as well as Features Editor Claire Lobenfeld's essay about how Lil' Kim and Fiona Apple helped her survive a childhood trauma.]
“How Big and ‘Un trust you in the studio with me?/ Don’t they know I’m tryna sex you continuously?” When Jay Z makes this joke, early on in Hard Core‘s “Big Momma Thang,” he’s publicly poking an exquisitely private hornet’s nest. Even though the album opens with Lil’ Kim‘s immortal salvo “I used to be scared of the dick,” it’s Jay’s line that truly startles me. It’s intimate in a way that hurts: What Jay Z proposes to Kim in his verse, the first guest verse on her record, isn’t just a fling: It’s a series of ruthless, carefully calculated betrayals. He intends to “Pull a high-power coup, make you jump ship/ Leave who you with, run with the Roc-A-Fella crew.” He’s thinking about spreading “A ill rumor, make you flip on Lil Cease.” He even imagines Biggie and Junior M.A.F.I.A. have bugged the studio and are on their way to murder him. While there’s a laugh in his voice, it’s deeply mirthless and functions like an arrow pointing right into the rot in the album’s heart. Jay, ever the cold-blooded hustler, saw all the angles and how to play them. This was a group primed to self-destruct.
On the surface, the mood of “Big Momma Thang” is that of “just some friends, fucking around.” But the buried layers of hurt and mistrust and betrayal on Hard Core are now as audible as a snare crack. The characters in it know one another inside and out, and the idea of trust is both fiercely protected in theory and completely absent in practice. Kim demands oral sex because her partner tries to “steal the pussy like a thief” on “We Don’t Need It,” and you can hear Cease laughing uproariously over the mere suggestion that any man would grant her demands. Two of the album’s skits, one from a group of men and one from a group of women, allow us to eavesdrop on murmured conversations in which a group of friends scopes out the opposite sex and figures out what they can get from them. Biggie and his friends bandy about the suggestion of “anal,” leeringly, while Kim and her friends try to figure out how to jump a man for his necklace (“suck his dick, he probably like that shit,” one girl reasonably suggests).
What’s much more remarkable, 18 years later, about all of this scheming and double-crossing, isn’t that it provides commentary on sex as power exchange. Or, rather, it’s not just that. Sex as power has been a central talking point of Hard Core ever since it was released, after all, when Kim brought a vision of black female sexuality into a white media spotlight glare. What remains resonant is that it all takes place among a close group of friends. Biggie, Kim, Foxy Brown, Jay, Junior M.A.F.I.A, Faith Evans, 2Pac — they were scattered across coasts and affiliations, but they were joined by a series of messy and awkward personal links. Together, they formed a sort of Rap Fleetwood Mac, a dysfunctional family of ambitious, manipulative men and powerful women.
Hard Core is the princess-cut diamond center of it all, the pivotal episode in the greatest, seamiest, and most-watched soap opera in gangsta rap. Let’s review some of the details: Kim was Biggie’s live-in girlfriend until he left her for Faith abruptly, who he married after two weeks (though he continued to step out with Kim afterwards). “I tried my best to be a good wife for as long as I could take the disrespect,” Evans told People in 1998. In her biography Keeping the Faith, Evans recounted stumbling onto Biggie and Kim in bed, whereupon she proceeded to whoop Kim’s ass on the spot before she could put clothes on.
Evans, of course, was accused of sleeping with Pac while Biggie cheated with Kim. “You claim to be a player but I fucked your wife,” 2Pac barked at Biggie on “Hit Em Up,” one of the most brutally effective diss songs in history. 2Pac’s Evans-based smear campaign was motivated, in part, by “Who Shot Ya?” a song in which Biggie seemed to claim responsibility for a shooting at the Hot 97 station in November of 1994 that altered the course of 2Pac’s career forever. (Biggie, for his part, protested forever that the verse was recorded seven months before the attack, and that Puffy had told him to cut it “because it was too hard.”) Evans denied sleeping with Pac forever afterward, but Biggie probably died convinced she had: “If Faith had twins, she’d probably have two Pacs,” he joked dryly on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” from Jay Z’s debut Reasonable Doubt. Reasonable Doubt was released in the summer of ’96; it was only five months later that Jay was on Kim’s record joking about tearing the M.A.F.I.A. family apart. Lost yet?
The more you try to tug at this Gordian knot, the further it unspools in a mess at your feet. After Biggie’s death, Kim retired to Biggie’s empty Teaneck, New Jersey, mansion with the entirety of Junior M.A.F.I.A., whom she referred to as her “family.” Every morning, she rose and kissed the urn containing half of Biggie’s ashes (Evans held onto the other half). Years later, her “family” would sell her upriver in an eye blink. After 21 bullets were fired at Hot 97 in 2001, Kim denied her presence at the shooting; Cease, taking the stand in 2005, contradicted her. She was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice and sentenced to a year and a day in jail.
What was behind the shooting the first place? A growing, festering war of words between Kim and her onetime friend, fellow Brooklyn rapper Foxy Brown, which escalated into a feud between entourages. The history between Kim and Foxy has grown so toxic that it’s almost lost to time that they, like Biggie and 2Pac, were once friends; there was even talk of a Thelma & Louise-style duo.
On Hard Core, everyone speaks to everyone else through a proxy, carrying veiled messages. When we listen to Kim rap about “buffoons eating my pussy while I watch cartoons,” we are hearing rhymes Biggie wrote (you can hear him rap these lyrics in this video.) In the same verse, Kim boasts of being a “disease-free bitch,” which some eagle-eyed conspiracy theorists viewed as a shot at Foxy Brown; a few years earlier, Foxy popped up on the remix to LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya,” rapping “I’m sexing raw dog, with no protection, disease infested.” Was Big trying to set up a public “cat fight” between the two prominent women in his orbit? Or were they just dope rhymes? “I Shot Ya,” of course, nods at “Who Shot Ya” in its title, and loops back into the all-consuming vortex of the East Coast-West Coast beef. During these years, it seemed as if everyone had their mind on one another’s business, their crosshairs trained on one another’s heads and their hands in one another’s pants.
Years later, they resemble aging icons trapped in a vintage soap opera. “I got four kids, and I definitely don’t have time for this type of shit,” sighed Faith Evans heavily in 2009, when MTV News asked her about Lil’ Kim’s disparaging remarks about the Biggie biopic Notorious. “It’s just sad.” You can see the same weariness etched in Kim’s face in the 2005 reality show Countdown to Lockdown, where she doggedly plows into the promotional campaign for her album The Naked Truth with her few remaining close associates surrounding her.
In light of all this context, Hard Core almost sounds…well, not innocent, exactly. This is an album where the fantasy of being orally serviced by the entire Harlem Boy’s Choir is entertained. But there is pathos in hearing everyone here at the height of their careers, sharing joy and swapping gossip and partners. Whether they like it or not, they are going to be linked together for the rest of their lives.