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Lil Kim's 'Hard Core'via Tumblr

How Lil’ Kim flipped sexuality on her iconic debut

With ‘Hard Core’, Kim became the first high-profile female rapper to flip the script on objectification in the rap industry – 20 years later, it sounds more vital than ever

I used to be scared of the dick / now I throw lips to the shit / handle it like a real bitch. For Lil’ Kim these aren’t just lyrics, they’re a mission statement. When she first appeared on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Player’s Anthem” back in 1995, she bragged about bank robberies, flaunted her guns, and pledged her allegiance to Notorious B.I.G, the rap icon that went on to become her lover and mentor. Things were markedly different when she reappeared in November 1996 as a fully-fledged, sex-positive superstar to change the game forever with her debut album Hard Core. Her flow was still self-assured, brazen, and impressively aggressive but, over the course of 11 tracks, she did what few women before her had done – she expressed this aggression sexually.

This isn’t to say that Lil’ Kim was the first successful female rapper. MC Lyte left a permanent mark when she became the first to drop a full-length in 1988 with Lyte As A Rock, Queen Latifah and Roxanne Shanté were establishing notable legacies throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, while Lady of Rage and Gangsta Boo were busy proving that women could go hard, too. Kim was, however, the first high-profile female rapper to flip the script on female objectification in the rap industry. She set herself apart by owning, weaponising, and celebrating her unapologetic sexuality. The result was an unprecedented success which, to date, has sold more than six million copies worldwide.

The first chapter of Lil’ Kim’s sexual legacy launched in the form of a now-iconic promo poster. Dressed in nothing but a leopard-print bikini, a matching fur-trimmed robe, and metallic mules, the billboard-sized image depicts Kim squatted down with her legs open, her lip curled and her eyes fixed on the camera lens. The same photoshoot spawned an equally provocative cover image, in which Kim poses in a sheer dress atop a disembodied polar bear rug. The countless bouquets of red roses and champagne cooler leave nothing to the imagination: it’s instantly clear that Kim is there to entice, seduce, and introduce you into her inimitable universe.

Fittingly, the album opens with audio of a man paying $10 to masturbate over Kim before she cuts him short. Kim being in control is a theme that runs throughout the album: “Not Tonight”, for example, is a rallying cry to women worldwide with a clear message – if he wants head, you’re equally entitled to demand he go down on you, too. Better still, it was reworked into a blockbuster remix added as a bonus track and featuring Missy Elliott, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes, Da Brat, and Angie Martinez.

Throughout Hard Core Kim recalls her sexual fantasies (most notably on “Dreams”, where she talks about masturbating over R&B singers) and repeatedly flaunts her wealth and designer connections. Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Jean-Paul Gaultier are all name-checked in ostentatious displays of riches which may, on first glance, seem superficial. Consider, however, the fact that black women are routinely paid significantly less than their equally skilled contemporaries and Kim’s message takes on new meaning – she’s carving out success in an oppressive world.

“(Lil Kim was) the first high-profile female rapper to flip the script on female objectification in the rap industry. She set herself apart by owning, weaponising, and celebrating her unapologetic sexuality”

However, her own racial identity has become one of the topics most frequently linked to the star over the 20 years following Hard Core. The most recent example was a viral video where Kim joked she feels like a ‘Latina trapped in a black girl’s body’, whereas her Instagram posts have been known to spark debate for their apparent skin bleaching. She has, however, largely kept quiet and instead continued to release music and forge an iconic legacy – just recently, she gave an interview to XXL in which she describes Hard Core as the moment she learned she was a megastar.

Kim flexes this star power and demonstrates her inimitable flow over arguably the most influential hits of her career, namely “Drugs” and “Queen Bitch”, which even 20 years later remain stone-cold bangers. “Queen Bitch” sees Kim at her lyrical best, cruising effortlessly over a steady beat and bragging that she “got buffoons eating my pussy while I watch cartoons”. Naturally, many were quick to discredit the star, awarding Notorious B.I.G. disproportionate ownership over her success. These rumours were further fueled when audio footage of Biggie rapping “Queen Bitch” emerged, sparking accusations of ghostwriting and reducing Kim’s agency in her own success. She went on to discredit these rumours, however, by maintaining a flawless track record throughout the years after Biggie’s death, later addressing the claims on “Single Black Female”: “My n***a gone now so who writing my rhymes? / No disrespect, yall bitches owe me publishing cheques.

Today, there are many women rapping about vital issues and attracting critical acclaim and sizeable audiences, but few – aside, perhaps, from the equally iconic Nicki Minaj – have succeeded in truly dominating the mainstream like Lil’ Kim. Furthermore, her vital message of sex positivity has only come to seem more important in the two decades following the release of Hard Core.

Contextually, we live in a world which just saw one of its most powerful countries elect a president accused of rape. Despite claiming to use his power to “grab women by the pussy”, Donald Trump has succeeded in his bid for one of the world’s most influential titles and, as a result, looks set to threaten the rights of women and minorities across America. Elsewhere, a rise in queer and female-led porn has sparked a new sexual revolution of sorts – sites including MakeLoveNotPorn look to depict a more realistic portrayal of sex that actually appeals to the desires of women. Yet the truth remains that promiscuous women and sex workers are still routinely (and institutionally) discriminated against. Events like SlutWalk may be challenging prejudice towards promiscuous women, yet women’s rights continue to be threatened and undermined.

Ultimately, the all-encompassing message of Hard Core is not rooted in any one time period. 20 years later, Kim remains an anomaly due to her willingness to flaunt her sexuality and flip the script on men with raw, explicit lyrics. She may have been sexualised, but she was never unaware – she was more than willing to strip down, sex up, and dare men to desire her. By doing so, she set an example for women restricted by conservative values that tell women they can either be smart or sexy, but rarely both. Women are taught that to exploit their sexuality is to devalue their mind – Kim stuck two fingers up at this, achieving unprecedented success and critical acclaim while simultaneously flaunting her beauty and instructing men to fuck her as she wants to be fucked.