Abe Beame interrupts his series of obsessive nerding out to bring you a think piece on “Hardcore.” It’s difficult to gauge how responsible Biggie was for its composition. He executive produced the album, shows up with small, perfectly placed touches, lends Kim his delivery and cadence, but gets no explicit writing credits. But to ignore it — one of Biggie’s greatest accomplishments — would be criminal.
With his first album, Biggie changed the idea of the rapper as narrator and revolutionized crack rap. Not bad by the age of 22. In between Ready to Die and Life After Death, he also found time to usher the female MC into the modern era. Prior to the entrance of Lil Kim, there had been a few schools of female MC’s. There were the Godmothers, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante and later, Da Brat who rapped with a masculine sensibility, kicking, and occasionally surpassing their male counterparts as faithful practitioners of Sedgwick Avenue Boom Bap. Then there were women in larger group collectives (Queen Latifah/Native Tongues, Ladybug Mecca/Digable Planets, Lady of Rage/Death Row), who extended the style, ideas and philosophies of their crews.
The most direct ancestor of Hardcore was Salt N Pepa, three women from Queens who began as a Lyte-styled boom-bap act, but evolved into something else. 1993’s Very Necessary, one of a very crowded year’s better Rap albums, deftly balanced topics as diverse as societal ills and sexuality. But their use of sexuality often had statement written over it, while their delivery evidenced deep roots in rap.
Lil Kim changed everything, making the group’s bluest material sound downright tame by comparison. On Hardcore, Kim rapped with a conversational delivery and owned her sexuality in the same manner her male peers did — grabbing her figurative dick and making no apologies for her appetites. If it sounds like a guy’s idea of what a girl’s innermost thoughts are, that’s because it was.
While this was new to rap, it was by no means new. The twentieth century provides an entire history of women celebrating their proclivities for drinking, gambling and fucking. Their music was almost always produced, written and arranged by men. An issue music historians barely deem worthy of mentioning as they celebrate the likes of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters and Cassandra Wilson.
And so Christopher Wallace found his Ma Rainey in the form of Kimberly Jones, a 4’10 hyper sexualized hood rat who grew up around the same area in Bed-Stuy. Her first appearances on Conspiracy are electric, exhibiting deft twists on Biggie’s phrasing and cadence that deserve lavish praise. With the show-stealing, floating and stinging performances turned in on “Get Money,” “Queen Bitch,” and “All About the Benjamins, it’s easy to see what Biggie saw in her.
Hardcore is 11 songs and four almost unlistenable skits. We know a young Cam’ron wrote “Crush on You” for Lil Cease. Jermaine Dupri (or his ghostwriter) was likely behind “Not Tonight,” and you could make an argument that Jay-Z wrote Kim’s verse on “Big Momma Thang.” As was so often the case, Jay would follow in Biggie’s footsteps a year later with Foxxy Brown’s hit packed Ill Na Na. With Biggie most likely composing the rest, that makes this album the work of one of the most impressive rap brain trusts ever assembled.
The character they created updates the female folk hero displayed in those early Blues songs: a gangster who can shoot, fight and curse with the boys, but has no desire to be one. Kim talks about her anatomy and sexual prowess, and the raunch is all delivered without comment. This sort of ownership was completely unique to hip hop at the time, and the idea of the female MC was forever changed. Foxxy Brown emerged as a star in her own right a year later, and sexual braggadocio, as well lending your flow a certain femininity is practically requisite for any contemporary female MC. Nicki Minaj, already arguably the most successful woman to ever rap, has taken the little flourishes that made Kim so compelling and inflated them to dizzying, cartoonish heights.
But beyond questions of gender roles, archetypes and impact, Hardcore serves as an exercise in pure pop song writing. A group of very talented young artists got together at the height of their powers and each knocked their opportunities out of the park. Cam’s “Crush On You” is a light, addictive piece of fluff with a perfect hook. “Big Momma Thang” is a funky bit of clever Brooklyn swagger. “Queen Bitch” is one of the more vicious examples of the lyrical showcase in the cannon (a sadly extinct song type that was once common place on New York rap albums).
The track that perhaps best embodies the album is “Drugs”, a very weird love song. The music box beat is a pull from an instrumental interlude on the Shaft soundtrack. Kim’s verses are standard shit talk, extolling her virtues as Biggie cheers her on with a chorus, stating his devotion and admiration. Biggie, who didn’t have anyone’s idea of a great singing voice, really goes for it on the hook. The result amounts to far more than the sum of its parts. The song allows the listener to eschew all questions of craft and narrative, of empowerment and exploitation. It’s a simple, soulful thing of beauty.