It’s been over 20 years since Lil’ Kim, aka Kimberly Jones, entered the scene with her double platinum debut, Hard Core. Today, with Cardi B, Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj and a hoard of bold newcomers like Megan Thee Stallion, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how elemental Kim was—and just how deeply she continues to influence rap and style today. You see in 1996, long before Beyoncé and her Bey Hive, there was another Queen Bee.
Enter Lil’ Kim, who rose out of hip-hop group Junior M.A.F.I.A. at Biggie’s side. Before her solo release, which almost came out under the name Queen Bee, Kim had collaborated with her lover and mentor Notorious B.I.G. on Ready to Die and made her mark on “Get Money” and “Player’s Anthem.” Hard Core took her to another level, placing her as the new queen of rap following Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte, with sexually empowered tracks “No Time,” “Crush on You,” “Queen Bitch,” and Kim’s personal favorite, “Drugs.” She reclaimed the word bitch and she talked about getting licked with no censorship, no shame, and no apologies.
There is something about Lil’ Kim that is simultaneously intensely performative and unapologetically real. When Biggie Smalls died, she said “Money isn’t everything” with unencumbered sincerity. She knew how to perform and how to own it—way before Nicki Minaj slipped into a pink giraffe bodysuit, Kim stunned at the 1999 VMAs in lilac hair, a mermaid jumpsuit, and a matching nipple pasty—but she was never camp to the point of caricature. “Financially, we may be making ends meet, but spiritually we’re struggling as we cope… It’s a year after Biggie’s death, and it’s not getting any easier to let go,” Kim said in ‘97.
Kim didn’t have an issue being vulnerable; she was sexual, and she took no prisoners in her music. Hard Core influenced the entire genre of female rap: Kim’s approach to sexuality was blunt and it was brazen like no mainstream female rapper before. With “Big Momma Thang,” “Dreams,” and “Not Tonight” in particular, she changed the way that women talked about their own sexual pleasure in rap and hip-hop. Hard Core’s sexual self-ownership was feminist in a way rap had not been before.
Twenty-some years later, Kim’s flow holds up and somewhat unfortunately, the sentiment behind her explicit and self-empowered lyrics is still subversive. Still, she stands tall, owning where she comes from, who she is, and what she wants.