Hard Core is the debut studio album by American rapper Lil’ Kim, released on November 12, 1996, by Undeas Recordings, Big Beat Records, and Atlantic Records. After achieving success with the hip hop group Junior M.A.F.I.A. and their album Conspiracy (1995), Kim began working on her solo album with the Notorious B.I.G. serving as the executive producer (besides this, he performed on four songs). She collaborated with a number of producers, such as Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Stevie J., David “Ski” Willis and Jermaine Dupri, among others. Other rappers, including Jay-Z, Lil’ Cease and Puff Daddy were featured on the album.
The album was notable for its overt raunchy sexual tone and Kim’s lyrical delivery, which was praised by music critics and is considered a classic album. Hard Core debuted at number 11 on the US Billboard 200 and at number three on the Billboard’s Top R&B Albums, selling 78,000 copies in its first week, while reaching number 26 of the Canadian Albums Chart. The album was certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
After making her debut recording appearance on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s Conspiracy album, Lil’ Kim appeared on records by artists such as Mona Lisa, the Isley Brothers, and Total. With recording her debut album, Hard Core was mainly recorded at The Hit Factory in Manhattan, New York City. Working with a number of producers, including Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Jermaine Dupri, the album featured edgy hardcore rap and explicit sexuality, as the title suggested, which at the time were two territories that had long been the province of male rappers. The album was originally titled “Queen Bee”.
Guest artists included Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., and other members of Junior M.A.F.I.A. The promotional campaign for the album, including the album cover, featured provocative advertisements of Kim dressed in a skimpy bikini and surrounded by furs.
During the recording sessions, Kim and B.I.G made a demo for the track “Street Dreams”, never released officially. “Big Momma Thang” was originally intended to be a diss towards Faith Evans and 2Pac but was re-recorded after Biggie disapproved of it. The verse containing remarks against Faith was replaced by Jay-Z’s vocals while the third verse, which had a diss on 2Pac, was re-recorded by Kim.
The first two singles from Hard Core, the gold-certified “No Time” and the remix version of “Crush on You” both peaked in the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, top 10 of the Hot R&B Singles chart, and topped the Rap Songs chart, making Lil’ Kim the first female rap artist to have two consecutive number-one singles on that chart. Both singles peaked in the top 50 of the UK Singles Chart. A third single, “Not Tonight” (Remix), became a huge top 10 success in 1997, peaking at number six on the Hot 100, number three on the Hot R&B Singles chart, and topping the Rap Songs chart. The single also reached the top 20 on the UK chart and number 10 in Germany. The single was certified platinum by the RIAA. It was nominated in 1998 for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. “Big Momma Thang” was released to commercial radio in the fall of 1996
Hard Core received critical acclaim. The Source called the album “a solid debut because phat beats and rhymes are really all it takes, and they’re both present”, while Rolling Stone magazine included Hard Core in its list of “Essential Recordings of the 90’s”. In 2003, PopMatters wrote, “Track for track, Hard Core’s thuggette-auctioneering flow melds the perfect hybrid of yoni power Mafioso and Park Avenue duchess.” Rolling Stone concluded in reviewing the album in the magazine’s 2004 version of The Rolling Stone Album Guide:
Hip-hop had never seen anything like Brooklynite Kimberly Jones at the time of her solo debut: She single-handedly raised the bar for raunchy lyrics in hip-hop, making male rappers quiver with fear with lines like “You ain’t lickin’ this, you ain’t stickin’ this . . . I don’t want dick tonight/Eat my pussy right” (“Not Tonight”). Riding the wing of Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Kim’s Hard Core helped put East Coast hip-hop back on top in the late ’90s. The album’s overreliance on old ’70s funk samples doesn’t detract a bit from the Queen Bee’s fearless rhymes: In “Dreams”, she demands service from R. Kelly, Babyface, and nearly every “R&B dick” in the field. A landmark of bold, hilarious filth.
In July 2022, Rolling Stone ranked Hard Core as the 78th best debut album of all time
Hard Core debuted and peaked at number 11 on the US Billboard 200 and at number three on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, selling 78,000 copies in its first week. Despite not spending another week inside the top 30, the album was certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on March 14, 2001, and had sold 1,489,701 copies in the United States by November 2011. In Canada, the album peaked at number 62. As of November 2016, Hard Core had sold over five million copies worldwide.
In August 2018, the album entered the top 10 Hip Hop/Rap Albums chart on iTunes, reaching number six despite the album being released nearly 22 years prior and eventually reached number one for a short time. It also peaked at number 22 on the overall albums chart on iTunes.