A timely reminder that Lil Kim’s ‘Hard Core’ is still the greatest rap record of all time

She's got a new album, '9', out today, so let's revisit Lil Kim's fabulously rude, game-changing 1996 masterpiece, shall we?

It’s with a certain delicious irony that Nicki Minaj has announced her retirement from music within a few weeks of Lil Kim’s new album ‘9’ having been released (it came out today).

The rappers feuded from 2007: it began with a something-and-nothing dispute over Nicki’s mixtape ‘Playtime Is Over’, which Kim reckoned ripped off the cover of her 1996 classic ‘Hard Core’, and rumbled on for over a decade. They’ve since buried the hatchet: Kim blessed her former foe in an interview last year and in turn Nicki paid tribute to Kim on ‘Barbie Dreams’, which riffed on the ‘Hard Core’ track ‘Dreams’.

The feud, and the cancelling of the feud, underlined two things. Number one: there probably would have been no Nicki Minaj without Lil Kim. And number two: Kim has held sway over the cultural zeitgeist for more than two decades now. And it all started with ‘Hard Core’, the greatest rap album ever.

‘Illmatic’ by Nas? Sure! Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album’? I mean, why not? Kanye’s magnum opus ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’? I’m finding it hard to disagree with anything you’re saying. If you forced me to choose, though, I would trade every one of them for ‘Hard Core’. The ridiculously crisp ‘90s production, the bouncy pop hooks, the absolutely hilariously, relentlessly rude lyrics sprayed throughout like bathroom graffiti: it all amounts to a stone-cold knockout that changed hip-hop forever and still sounds vital in 2019.

Kim’s vision was crystallised with diamond clarity on her perfect debut. She was known to a rap audience prior to ‘Hard Core’, having appeared on Junior M.A.F.I.A’s 1995 record ‘Conspiracy’, but, under tutelage from her mentor, friend and lover Notorious B.I.G, it was her solo debut that established the 21-year-old as a true iconoclast – one with an uncompromising worldview and thrillingly, jaw-droppingly singular sense of humour.

The album was executive produced by B.I.G, which – with a certain grim inevitability – led some to write her off as a kind of pre-programmed rapper reciting lines penned by her more renowned associate. Of course, we can never know exactly what happened in the studio, but a) music is collaborative by nature and b) not a person on the planet besides Kim Denise Jones could have delivered these rhymes. There had been women in rap before Lil Kim came along, but the likes of Queen Latifah and MC Lyte, although trailblazers in the genre, didn’t boast such well-defined personas.

Kim’s USP was simple but delivered with laser precision: she out-filthed the male rappers at every turn. ‘Hard Core’ is an unchained blockbuster of muck, a rollicking ride through a mire of lewd lines and laugh-out-loud raunch. “You ain’t lickin’ this, you ain’t stickin’ this”, she goads with a shrug on ‘Not Tonight’. Later, on the same track, she deadpans the impeccable putdown: If sex was record sales you would be Double Glass”.

On and on goes Kim’s dizzying carnal carnival. From the taut, snare-snapping opener ‘Big Momma Thang’: “Tell me what’s on your mind when ya tongue’s in the pussy / Is it marriage? Baby carriage? Shit no!”

On ‘We Don’t Need It’, a chorus of women chant at the men of Junior M.A.F.I.A: “If you ain’t lickin’ no butts / We don’t want it”. I mean, come on, that’s really funny. Perhaps most fabulously, on ‘Dreams’, the track Nicki updated with ‘Barbie Dreams’ last year, Kim takes aim at all the contemporary male rappers she wants to bone: “What the deal on that Prince cat? / He be lookin’ fruity / But you still can eat the booty.”

So there’s a strong feminist bent to ‘Hard Core’, an album that sought to get even with the men drooling over women in their rhymes. At the time rap more commonly cast women as ‘hip-hop honeys’, but Kim placed herself front and centre, setting a template everyone from Nicki Minaj to Cardi B would later follow. Her follow-up album, 2001’s ‘Notorious K.I.M’, saw her flounder in the wake of the death of B.I.G., which had left her heartbroken, but her legacy had already been cemented.

2003’s ‘La Bella Mafia’ was pretty damn good, while 2005’s ‘The Naked Truth’ was perhaps even better. But neither came close to the Grammy nominated, five million-selling ‘Hard Core’, which scored Kim three consecutive Number One singles. Well, what has? In 2018 LA rapper Doja Cat enjoyed a big viral hit with ‘Moo’, a languid slice of raunch-rap that owed a massive amount to Lil Kim’s give-a-fuck attitude. So now is a perfect time for Kim to come and reclaim her crown.

Nicki’s out, but Kim would still be on top even if she’d done nothing since breaking ground in 1996. Bow down.