In 1996, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown dismantled hip-hop's hypermasculinity with their gritty, feminist and sexy debuts Hard Core and Ill Na Na, respectively. Sure, before them, TLC delivered “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” or “Creep” while Queen Latifah, MC Lyte along with Salt-N-Pepa created lanes of their own but the effect Foxy Brown and Lil Kim had on the genre with their uncensored rhymes about sex and being a bad b---h was earth-shattering,
Before their debut albums came out a week apart from each other in '96 (Hard Core came out on Nov. 12 and Ill Na Na on Nov. 19), the two Brooklyn MCs were already making waves with their respective male counterparts. Lil Kim went hard on Junior M.A.F.I.A’s “Get Money” while Brown reigned supreme on "I Shot Ya" with LL Cool J, Keith Murray, Prodigy and Fat Joe and also rapped alongside a young Jay Z.
With their raunchy, over-the-top lyrics and skimpy clothes to match, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown took complete ownership of their womanhood and had no qualms about calling out fake or small "n---as" (see: Foxy Brown's "I'll Be" and Lil Kim's "No Time"). Now, 20 years later, their influence is still tangible and sonically present in today's crop of female artists.
To commemorate their classic albums, Billboard chatted with several prominent journalists to share their personal memories and thoughts on how Lil Kim and Foxy Brown revolutionized hip-hop forever.
Kathy Iandoli, Author/Writer for XXL, VIBE, BET, Rolling Stone, among others
In seeing Foxy and Kim release these albums it was a reassurance that skills paid off; it didn’t really matter who was helping with the rhymes. It was the delivery and the content that was being said, and whose mouth it was coming out of. It was just a reassurance to me as a hip-hop head that this space might be opening up for women in a way that has never been done before. There was something about what they said and how they were saying it that was hinting that a huge change was about to come.
In 1997 around the summertime, I was in New Jersey at a T.G.I. Friday's eating dinner with two of my friends, and I was a huge Lil Kim fan. I love Foxy, but there was something about the Queen Bee aesthetic that just spoke to me. I loved her, and I even had a license plate that said “Queen Bee.” One of my friends came back from the bathroom and said, "You’re not going to believe this, but Lil Kim is here having dinner."
So I walk up to this long table in the back, and Lil Kim and Lil Cease were there. It was a long table of heads, and I walk up to the table and Kim is at the head of the table, and she has this long blonde hair; she just looked completely radiant. I walked up to her and she looks at me. And I go, "Hi, I wanted to introduce myself because you changed my life." And I showed her my license plate key chain, and I go, "I also wanted to offer my condolences on Biggie passing." And she says to me, "Sit down and have dinner with us."
They moved their chairs, and I sat down; and she was like, "I was having a really bad day, so thank you for even saying that." Then she said, "So you’re the Queen Bee, huh?" and I was like, "Well I am the other Queen Bee."
I had a planner, and I ripped a page out for her autograph, and she wrote "to the other Queen Bee." I sat down and I had dinner with her. It was crazy. It was just one of those things that when I left, I said to myself, "If someone who had just lost the love of their life can still talk to me, and even entertain my presence then I can interview artists for a living, and that was when I made the decision at that point to become a journalist."
And after, Kim had said to me, "Whenever you see me in these streets, we will always have dinner together." So fast forward like 15 years later and I have to interview Kim, and this is after everything—her albums are done; her face is different; aesthetically we thought she was a different person, and after the interview I said, "Kim, I’m not sure if you remember this, but back in 1997. I came up to you at a T.G.I Fridays in Jersey." And she looks at me, and she goes, "and we had dinner together. I’ll never forget that night. We had a great night, I told you whenever you see me, we’ll get dinner"
Aliya S. King, Author/Writer for VIBE, Ebony, Jezebel among others
The albums were kind of like an afterthought for Kim and Foxy. I had already fallen in love with them. I don’t think the release of their albums (at least not for me) was a huge landmark. Particularly for Foxy, she had done so many huge records that I don’t remember feeling like the actual release of the album was a huge event.
They were just everything I did not feel I had the space to be. At 23 years old, I did not have the space to say, “I will f--k the shit out of you.” I didn’t have the space to say that and own that, and not care about what anyone had to say about it. That was for a different type of women to say, not women like me, not women who were supposed to go to the right schools and marry the right man -- and have the right job.
I was teaching high school history the summer [the albums] came out, and although I can relate to so much of what they were talking about, I absolutely could not talk about it. And I just don’t mean publicly; even with my friends, we weren’t that open about what we were doing in our lives...particularly sexually. Let’s be real -- Kim and Foxy were about a sexual revolution and the music was an afterthought. The fact that Kim and Foxy could spit was great, but their lyrical prowess or whatever they did musically was always an afterthought to what they were able to do as women owning their sexuality.
Iyana Robertson, Music Editor at BET
When I first heard Hard Core. I was so young, and was like, "Who is this?" I know they were bad words but I didn’t really understand the quote-on-quote bad words that she was saying. All I heard was a strong woman, and to me that was huge because when I hear this fierce woman coming out on a track saying, “I used to be scared of the dick now I throw lips to this shit,” I wanted to be like her not in a sexual sense, but in a strong sense.
I was less of a Foxy Brown fan, so I heard Ill Na Na a couple of years later but I had already been so attached to Kim. These albums speak to a lot of young women like me who are unapologetically embracing their sexuality.
Feminism has this debate attached to it -- if you’re a feminist, you do such and such. For Kim and Foxy, their criticism has always been that a man led them or that a man wrote their rhymes or that they were too sexy. Regardless if you thought Biggie wrote Kim’s lines, the fact that Kim existed was a big deal. And Kim rapped well on after Biggie’s death, so to equate who wrote her rhymes because of Biggie or Puff Daddy is another way people try to view women in general -- whoever that man is standing next to isn’t necessarily responsible for who that woman is. But that happens to women all the time, not just in hip-hop but in life.
Clover Hope, Senior Staff Writer at Jezebel
Obviously they were playing into the industry in regards to selling sex, but I think it’s a little bit more layered than that. From my perspective, they weren’t forced to sell sex or make that their platform. I think they were naturally that type of artist, and maybe some of it was played up by people in the background. I still think you can give credit to the power of the music they created even if some of it is a complicated process.
These are albums that you have to listen to understand the timeline of hip-hop over the years, and to contextualize women rapping today; and excess in hip-hop pertaining to how money became so much of a focus in the '90s. They will be remembered as milestones in hip-hop, and turning points in the genre also.
There was an idea back then that female rappers had to come out with some crew of male rappers, in order to be deemed credible. And that has gradually disappeared; where a woman can come out on her own and not need a male cosign. I think it’s interesting how that was their introduction to rap, and how that has been erased.
Alvin Aqua Blanco, Deputy Editor Hip Hop Wired
I do remember a lot of people thinking that Kim was a bit over the top with her sexuality -- Foxy Brown as well. When you look back, she was still a teenager that was being seen as a sex symbol. Back then, I really didn’t think about it that much because I was close to her age, and I was just trying to hear the rhymes.
And I didn’t mind looking at her, but I don’t think Def Jam would get away with the way they marketed her today; the way they did back then in '96.
Emil Wilbekin, Journalist, Former Editor-in-Chief of VIBE and Giant
If you are at a party and a DJ drops Lil' Kim's "No Time" or Foxy's "I'll Be," the crowd will go crazy and know all the lyrics. This music is the epitome of the golden era of hip-hop so there is a nostalgia to it. But they are also incredible songs and lyrics that still hold up today.
Lil Kim and Foxy Brown influenced a generation of women by giving a strong, powerful and liberated female voice to hip-hop. They also paved the way for artist like Missy Elliott, Trina, Eve, Nicky Minaj and many others.
I met Lil Kim when she was part of Junior M.A.F.I.A when I was at VIBE. What I loved about Kim Jones is that she is one of the nicest people I have worked with. She is the opposite of the powerful, sexy and hardcore Lil Kim persona. Kim also has a great work ethic. She always gives 100 percent to her performances, video shoots and photo shoots -- she never complained about doing the work. She just wanted it to be great!
Michael Arceneaux, Writer for Ebony, Complex, VIBE, XXL, VH1 among others
What I remember most about that era above all is the feeling of being shocked by Kim's promotional poster for Hard Core in some magazine. I was 12, chubby, and confused. I knew that I wasn't supposed to like boys so I tried extremely hard to like girls. So I focused a lot on the image of Kim for help. Spoiler: it didn't.
What stood out to me most about Kim's album is the line, "I used to be scared of the dick, now I throw lips to the shit." That line petrified the hell out of me for years because it hit a little too close to home. Now it's a mantra. Love you, Kimberly.
My first reaction to Ill Na Na was immediately rushing to hear "I'll Be." To this day, the video for that song makes me so happy. Back then, I recorded it on tape and watched it often and it forced me to go out and buy the CD single. Then I turned on the title track with Method Man and played on loop for what felt like forever.
I love Foxy Brown, but I think Kim's album has aged better. The Hitmen and other producers honored her well. And to her credit, a lot of Kim's material specifically still sounds forward.
Rajul Punjabi, Wellness Editor at VICE
I was 12 when Hard Core came out. It was glorious. I could really understand about half of what she was talking about on that album because it was grown woman’s business but she made me want to be a grown woman so badly. It was her confidence that got me. I knew I shouldn’t be learning every lyric that she spit but I so badly wanted that confidence -- at that age, Lil Kim lyrics are like kryptonite. You can’t be a self-conscious tween if you had Kim blaring in your Discman. You were that b---h. I so badly wanted to own that persona in my own way.
Ill Na Na had a similar effect on me but she was smoother whereas Kim was gritty. Foxy made me understand what the big deal is about claiming a man (whatever that means). "Get You Home" has to be the sexiest song ever made. Blackstreet is just buttery smooth and decadent. Twenty years later, I’ll put in on before I get dressed up to go out and my feminine energy just explodes everywhere. That song reminds me that a woman’s bars, words, or simple body language are often the essence of her sexuality. "I’ll Be," too. That yin and yang balance that Jay Z brought to the song is crazy.
If I were Foxy Brown, I wouldn’t be sitting around lamenting being hypersexualized. I’d be like, "all that matters is that I made millions of dollars off my art and enjoyed it." I hope and imagine she knew her self-worth.
Sowmya Krishnamurthy. Music Journalist for The Village Voice, XXL, Complex among others
These albums proved that women in hip-hop didn’t need to be “one of the boys” in order to have a seat at the table. Unlike predecessors who rocked baggy clothes or stripped themselves of their sexuality in order to fit in with male artists, Lil Kim and Foxy Brown were unapologetically women and they rapped just as hard -- if not, harder -- than any male artist at the time.
Anyone who sees these albums as sex, designer clothes and violence knows nothing about hip-hop. These are landmark albums not only for women in hip-hop but for women in pop culture in general. Lil Kim and Foxy Brown influenced a generation of young women to embrace their true selves fearlessly, from Nicki Minaj and Beyonce to Rihanna.