Two albums — within one week of the other's release — in November of 1996 forever changed the rap game as we know it. Lil' Kim's Hard Core (released November 12, 1996) and Foxy Brown's Ill Na Na (released November 19, 1996) both brought a dramatically new twist to the female narrative within rap music. Gone were the days of the seemingly cutesy aesthetic that often penetrated the women in rap sphere in conjunction with the opposing notion of surrendering sexuality and femininity in an effort to compete with the multi-decade boys club of hip-hop.
Both Kim and Foxy pushed the envelope similarly — albeit differently. Both had impeccable mentors: Kim with the late Notorious B.I.G. and Foxy with Jay Z. Their lyricism was sharp, while subject matter was equal parts ambitious and suggestive. Topics of women dominating in sex, in high fashion and even in crime were at the forefront, making it a battle cry to men everywhere that women were tired of taking a back seat in their demands, from the bedroom to the boardroom.
A lot happened by November of 1996. Tupac Shakur had passed away on September 13 of that year, so hip-hop was scrambling to figure out where it should go and what road it should travel upon. That inadvertently created a lane for these two women who combined sexual prowess with gangster sensibility. And we know the story by now of how Kim and Foxy started out as friends and ended as enemies, but side by side, when this mission started they both had the same end goal in mind: rap domination. Lining up Hard Core and lll Na Na side-by-side, there exists both continuity and diversion.
In BET.com's new series IDK (Iyana Debates Kathy), Iyana Robertson and Kathy Iandoli discuss which album realized that goal that both Kim and Foxy set out to achieve within those fateful seven days twenty years ago.
There’s no way around it: Lil’ Kim’s look was always of iconic proportions. If there was any way in which you could accuse Kimberly Jones of half-stepping, it would never be with her image. But further than her outward appearance, I think she took that icon status further by matching her message to her fearless aesthetic. She wasn't afraid to look like sex or speak about it. And we all had to deal with it.
One thing that stood out for Foxy’s aesthetic was that chocolate skin. Historically, the “wavy, light-skinned girls” were the prize to be and Foxy exuded a comfort in her brown that other little girls like her could appreciate. She later admitted that she was not as confident as she seemed, but that image of melanin and bossiness was an early indicator of #BlackGirlMagic.
If I must pick a winner, it’s Kim — but not without acknowledging Fox’s importance to a larger conversation.
Visually speaking, Lil’ Kim squatting for the Hard Core promo poster told us everything we needed to know about who she was and what she came to do. But from day one, she had a striking image, one that resonated and people were dying to replicate. The colorful wigs, the furs. I mean hell, she became a reference on Sex and the City, which proved her ability to penetrate the mainstream visually even outside of the music. She wore what she spit though. You could look at a Lil’ Kim photo and know the music you were about to get: sexy, wild and inhibition-free.
Foxy, ehhhhhhh. Not so much.
Her clothing wasn’t as revealing, but she did still wear see-through dresses and whatnot. But Foxy’s whole aesthetic was less memorable. Image-wise, she could’ve been anyone, really. She had the gruff sounding voice, which in my opinion sounded better at times than Kim’s, yet Foxy somehow managed to misplace that cadence by her second album. The fact that both she and Kim had that same tan outfit on in their album inserts is hilarious to me since rumor has it that caused their war. But I will say this: both were beautiful in completely different ways which made their images malleable at a time when we were still trying to figure out how to market women in rap.
It's safe to say Kim had more sexual content on Hard Core. Her verse on “We Don't Need It” left little to the imagination. And Foxy wasn't hopping on tracks like, "I used to be scared of the d**k, now I throw lips to the s**t..." Fox was more tame, perhaps because of the age difference. That's always been the interesting thing about the Foxy/Kim debate. It's was menial as they got older, but in '96, Foxy was a child.
I think that was impressive on Foxy’s part, whose maturity and skill level was almost the same as Kim's. Do you think a 17-year-old girl could get away with that today? I don't. And where Kim let off the sexual steam, I think Foxy excelled at storytelling and painting plots. But, again, this will come back to what remains iconic.
Kim wins again with fearless feminism.
I feel like the Notorious biopic gave us all we needed on the shaping of Lil’ Kim’s lyrics. She wanted to be that slick talking Brooklynite, but with Biggie as a mentor, the suggestion was to err on the side of (dare I say) raunchy. And it was pretty dope in my opinion because Kim was in the driver’s seat acting and talking like a dude. I mean, come on. In “Queen B***h” she’s like, “Got buffoons eatin’ my p***y while I watch cartoons.” That sounds like some straight up dude s**t. And yeah, it’s probably because Biggie wrote it. But coming from the mouth of a woman, it changes the game.
Where Kim was “raunchy” though, I say Foxy was “seductive.” Maybe it had something to do with her only being 17 and them having to tame that underage elephant in the room, but Foxy was dipped in innuendo. Even on “I’ll Be” she calls a d**k a “little thing,” so it’s like, hmmm OK. She had Jay Z as her mentor though, and he was the metaphor king, so maybe he wanted her lyrics to reflect that. Both approaches proved to be hard as hell to me though.
I’ve obviously been biased thus far, but here’s one category where Ill Na Na wins by a wide margin. The production by Trackmasters was as purposeful as it was masterful. Musicality was paid meticulous attention to on the album, with highlights shining light on Foxy and her collaborators’ knowledge, from samples of The Commodores to nods to LL Cool J. Kim fell short in this area, with a plethora of folks behind the boards – including Jermaine Dupri Stevie J and Ski Beatz – proving to be less successful than riding out with one heavy-hitting duo.
Ninety percent of Ill Na Na was produced by Trackmasters, who were giving us the best ‘90s pop-leaning rap beats in the game. It showed in the product, since Fox’s project felt like it was geared more toward mainstream success (more on that later). Hard Core was a hodgepodge of production. Puff did NOT put his best beats forward AT ALL. I mean, look at the liner notes. Stevie J produced “No Time,” Stretch Armstrong produced “Big Momma Thang,” Jermaine Dupri produced “Not Tonight” and the rest were not categorically prominent producers for the ‘90s. It’s a little weird to see that, considering Kim had Puffy RIGHT THERE in pocket, along with DJ Clark Kent. There has to be a backstory that I’m missing as to why she didn’t get the best production that was within arm’s reach.
Guest features-wise, Ill Na Na wins. Blackstreet on “Get Me Home,” Method Man on the title track, Jay Z on “I’ll Be” and even Havoc on “The Promise” and Kid Capri on “Fox Boogie.” Like I mentioned before, this album was designed to hit the mainstream in its form and function. Kim worked with a lot in the way of features too, with the Notorious B.I.G. on “Drugs,” Puffy on “No Time,” Jermaine Dupri on “Not Tonight” and various members of Junior M.A.F.I.A. sprinkled in.
Agreed. But can we talk about who had the better song with Jay Z? Because I’m inclined to vote Lil’ Kim on this one. “Big Momma Thang” is so f**king hard! And Kim murdered Hov, a feat that is rarely done — especially by a woman.
Foxy wins here. She had the singles. “Gotta Get You Home” and “I’ll Be” were the JAMS. They weren’t too risqué for mainstream ears but they still had enough edge to promote Foxy’s brand. But Fox was used to that because she had two decently sized singles — “Ain’t No N***a” with Jay Z and “Touch Me, Tease Me” with Case — before that. She was trained to build hits, whereas Kim was trained to build shock value, even though Hard Core had some decently sized singles, like “No Time” and “Crush on You.”
Comparatively speaking though, Kim’s biggest fail was putting the Lil Cease-only version of “Crush on You” on the album. That was the biggest single attached to Hard Core and the real version wasn’t even on it. Maybe it was a slick business move for people to jump on the relatively new CD single bandwagon at the time. Plus the “Not Tonight” remix “Ladies Night” was the B-side on that maxi single and was like the catch up hit with Missy Elliott on there, Angie Martinez, Left Eye, even Mary J. Blige dancing in the video. It seemed as though Kim was late to her own party so she had to keep up with her sexytime fame and temper it with some pop-friendly stuff to make her brand more versatile. I’m still SO salty about that “Crush on You” flub though. “It’s gonna be a no from me, dawg.” — Randy Jackson
Can we put the technicalities aside and give Kim her just due for these bomb-ass singles? Of course, the Cease-only version of “Crush on You” was the biggest faux-pas of them all. And yes, the girl power on “Not Tonight (Remix)” deserved prime real estate on the original tracklist, but if Foxy’s “Gotta Get You Home” and “I’ll Be” are put up against those two remixes and “No Time” – which were all part of the album’s push and are synonymous with its success and status – Foxy comes up short. Though Fox was bred to make hip-pop singles, the culmination of those three bangers from Kim (which all also performed better on the Billboard 200 that year) edged her out by a wide margin.
Note: To this day, I can’t go down an escalator without imitating the “No Time” video.
The argument for timelessness is one that is never really informed by merely one moment in time. And unfortunately, this doesn’t work in Foxy Brown’s favor. Had Ill Na Na and Hard Core been the only albums these two women ever dropped, this conversation might have gone a little differently. But since Lil’ Kim had only just begun the chokehold she eventually put on the femcee game, Hard Core remains timeless as a precursor to her hip-hop monarchy. Four years later, Notorious K.I.M. picked up where Kim left off and earned her the solidified crossover success that many had forecast for Foxy. I’d venture to say the reason is that Fox remained so characteristically Brooklyn at a time when New York was about to take a backseat.
Kim wins, and the irony there is overwhelming. Here we had Foxy, CLEARLY designed for pop standard from the content to the beats to the singles to the features, yet she didn’t have the longevity. Kim meanwhile entered with pure shock to the core of what people expected from a woman in hip-hop, yet she commanded her place in the game. She wore the wigs, talked about the sex, and still managed to turn out the superstar. Foxy, meanwhile, had a blueprint laid out for her that didn’t survive her debut album. Maybe it’s for that very reason Ill Na Na isn’t as timeless to me. The production is ‘90s pop-hip-hop and the songs are very indicative of that era in mainstream, whereas Kim had arguably more “underground” beats and the songs weren’t really designed to hit the radio. For that reason, I can listen to Hard Core and not feel the need to designate it to an era. Also, after their respective debuts, we know which of the two got to wear the crown. They don’t call her Queen Bee for nothing.
(Photo from left: Big Beat Records/Atlantic Records, Def Jam Recordings/Violator, Kevin Mazur Archive 1/WireImage, Ron Galella/WireImage)