Now Watch Mama: Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, and the Rise of the Female MC

How 'Hard Core' and 'Ill Na Na' changed the game for women in rap.

This is part of Complex's The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success.

I have many memories from my freshman year of high school. I felt so grown walking into my first class as a 9th grader. The summer prior, I spent time perfecting my nascent “diva” style. I loved hip-hop: the clothes, the bravado, the audacity, the arrogance, the opulence, the stories, the beats, the dances. Having recently moved to a suburb of the nation’s capital after spending my childhood in the heart of northeast Washington, D.C., and having begun school at an elite private institution in northwest Washington, hip-hop became a vehicle through which I could stay connected to the communities that shaped and anchored me in a distinct working-class black experience.

Perhaps because of where I grew up, I never rode for one region in particular when it came to music. I loved artists from New York, Houston, Cleveland, Atlanta, Memphis, Philadelphia, Compton, New Jersey, and Oakland. My parents never fully censored my intake of hip-hop. I was allowed to listen, watch, and dance. They were aware of the frequent usage of profanity, but they also considered it “youth music.” In several instances, the songs I listened to and the music videos I watched prompted thoughtful conversations with my parents about issues such as the failings of the War on Drugs, racial profiling and police brutality, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and black nationalism. My dad always impressed me with his ability to identify samples of his favorite artists in the tracks of my favorite artists. On a basic level, my mom and dad enjoyed rap music, and they understood why I loved it.

In November 1996, however, my parents’ relatively open approach to my engagement with hip-hop was challenged by the debut albums of two rap artists. On Nov. 12, 1996, Lil’ Kim dropped her first solo album, Hard Core. A week later, Foxy Brown released her debut, Ill Na Na. The back-to-back releases and subsequent commercial success of these projects was a watershed moment in hip-hop. Hard Core was RIAA certified double platinum and produced three consecutive No. 1 singles on the Rap Songs chart. Ill Na Na was certified platinum within three months of its release. The unprecedented commercial success of two solo female rap artists marked a particular moment in hip-hop history.

Lil Kim Image via KMazur/WireImage; Foxy Brown Image via Evan Agostini/Getty Images

The overtly sexual lyrics, even in the radio edit versions of the singles, made my mother clutch her proverbial pearls. I still remember my mother’s face as I rapped along to “Now watch mama go up down…” on Lil’ Kim’s “No Time.” Little did she know the uncensored lyrics immediately following were “Before you nut, I’ma dribble down your butt cheeks/Make you wiggle, then giggle just a little/I’m drinkin’ babies.” Although my parents continued their policy of not censoring my listening, I think those words coming from the mouths of such “young women” unsettled them because of their own investment in raising a “young lady.”

Those lyrics and my affinity for them also forced my mother and father to consider the possibility of their teenage daughter exploring her own sexuality. The more I rapped along to Kim’s “That’s how many times I wanna cum, 21/And another one, and another one, and another one/24 carats nigga” or Foxy’s “wanna taste the shit/Put me on a bass, and throw your face in it, fucker/Na Na, y’all can't touch her/My sex drive all night like a trucker/Let alone the skills I possess,” the more visible my parents’ discomfort became. I never asked, but I think they were most shocked, as were many folks, that young women would rap about such “racy” things. Whereas my parents were concerned about their daughter’s adolescent sexuality, the sexual content of these albums also raised eyebrows about if these women really wrote these stories of insatiable sexual appetites and raucous sexual escapades.

Video via YouTube

From questions about authorship to the pervasiveness of sexually explicit visual and lyrical content, to the glamorizing and eroticizing of the “ride or die bitch,” the significance of these albums resounds on several frequencies. Twenty years later we continue to wrestle with the meaning and impact of these young women coming on the rap scene boasting tales of sexual exploits, polyamorous desires, closets filled with designer clothes, and violence.

While themes of conspicuous consumption, sex, drugs, crime, loyalty, competition, and money did not originate with Kim or Foxy, their albums were formidable proclamations about the viability of female hip-hop artists using these themes as vehicles for success in mid- to late-1990s mainstream rap. The images on their respective album covers—Kim in a sheer shirt on her knees over a bear-skinned rug surrounded by red roses and champagne and Foxy in a low-cut black leather and sheer top with her lips noticeably spread apart—paired with the sexual content in their lyrics created a new lane for female rappers in search of mass appeal.

“The images on their album covers and the sexual content in their lyrics created a new lane for female rappers in search of mass appeal.”

Within mainstream hip-hop, the presence of female rappers reached its peak during the 1990s. This era included: Queen Latifah asking “who you callin’ a bitch,” cold rocking parties with MC Lyte; Da Brat giving it to you while getting us all Funkdafied; Yo-Yo reminding everyone to not even think about playing her out; Nonchalant lamenting drug-related violence among young black men; Left Eye encouraging us to believe in ourselves; the Lady of Rage rockin’ ruff and stuff with her Afro Puffs; Mia X as a good girl gone bad; Salt-n-Pepa telling us what makes them want to shoop; and Lauryn Hill letting folks know that even “after all my logic and my theory, I add a muthafucka so you ign’ant niggas hear me.” The range of female rappers on the radio, featured in leading hip-hop magazines, starring in music videos as the primary artists, and hitting and topping the charts reached a historical peak during the 1990s—a feat that has sadly not been replicated.

Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown went full throttle with explicit content and visually arresting and sexually stimulating images. They traversed similar terrain in their lyrical and visual content, but they executed their sexy, down-to-ride personas in unique ways. With substantial input on both lyrics and image from the Notorious B.I.G., Lil’ Kim gave us an album filled with female braggadocio and stories of violence and sex. Despite B.I.G’s substantial contributions to Kim’s debut effort, which included writing and shaping Kim into a hip-hop fantasy girl, Kim’s ability to spit was undeniable. You could feel in her delivery that she had stories to tell. Hard Core served as a template for the sexually available, ride or die chick, and Lil’ Kim became a hip-hop “pin-up” girl. The poster for Hard Core, Kim squatting, spread eagle straight to the camera in a leopard bra and panty set, donned the walls of every teenage boy I knew. While descriptions of it range from raunchy, tasteless, and hypersexual to sexy, unapologetic, and confident, the image remains iconic within the annals of hip-hop and pop culture history. That status was further reified by the duplication of Lil’ Kim’s infamous pose by current Queen of Hip-Hop Nicki Minaj over a decade after Hard Core.

Kim’s complicated and tumultuous relationship with B.I.G. gave him considerable creative license on her debut effort and her persona. Reflecting back on their relationship dynamic, I often think about the trajectory her first album could have taken without the significant input Biggie Smalls provided. Could Kim have made the same impact with her debut album if it primarily focused on her stories of growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, being raised by her dad until she was kicked out of the house, her dropping out of high school, and living on the street? These stories, not quite as glamorous or as titillating, remain of interest to me. If Kim rapped about her realities, I am uncertain that she would have garnered the debut success she had. It may have linked her more explicitly to other rap artists known for their truthful and visceral storytelling including her lover/mentor/collaborator Notorious B.I.G. or MC Lyte, but I doubt Hard Core would have made the same cultural impact.

With Hard Core, Lil’ Kim proved she had skills, but both her professional and personal attachment to B.I.G. sent her career on a trajectory where her storytelling was more muted in favor of a more marketable, sexually charged, and distinct rap persona. Even while knowing and asserting the significant input of B.I.G. on Hard Core, her debut revealed a young woman who had the talent and raw skills of an elite MC. When she rapped, “Lil’ Kim the Queen Bee, so you best take heed/Shall I proceed?” on the single version of Hard Core’s “Crush on You,” I was one of many who emphatically yelled back, “yes, indeed!”

Similar to Kim being heavily molded by B.I.G., Foxy Brown’s debut was largely authored and shaped by Jay-Z. Although a collaborative dynamic existed between Shawn and Inga, his lyrical imprint predominates her debut album. Her sexy persona and frequent references to organized crime unsurprisingly sparked many comparisons to Lil’ Kim. The back-to-back releases of their debut solo projects further intertwined their careers as well as their legacies. Foxy’s lyrics painted the picture of a “made woman” who rode for her men. The frequent references to her sexual prowess, willingness to exchange sex for money, and loyalty to men she valued echoed themes present in contemporaneous rap music. Whereas Lil’ Kim was the only female member of Junior M.A.F.I.A., Foxy was the sole woman of the Firm. They were both integral parts to the short-lived success of their respective hip-hop supergroups.

Although Foxy did not achieve the commercial success or even the iconic status Lil’ Kim reached, her debut album was an essential part of a turning point in mainstream rap music. Being certified platinum within three months of its release, lll Na Na cannot be dismissed as merely an album primarily written by male artists. Foxy had a distinct delivery as well and owned her performance of the “made woman” storyteller. Foxy had the ability to playfully, but confidently, rap lines like “brace yourself as I ride on top.” She excited her audience, not just with the content but with her confidence that she could talk like this, because she could back it up. We knew she did not have any real ties with the Mafia or organized crime, but it did not stop me or many folks bobbing their heads to “Firm nigga, we ’posed to be the illest on three coasts/Familia, bigga than Icos.” It was fantastical, but I liked it.

Video via YouTube

I found and still do find the glorification of violence on the albums disturbing, but the sex always intrigued. As a teenager beginning to discover my own sexuality and cultivating my personal style, I gravitated towards Kim and Foxy’s rapping about sexual autonomy and embraced their penchant for designer clothes, shoes, and handbags. At the time I did not question the authorship of their lyrics or images because of their convincing, performed audacity, especially Lil’ Kim’s. Their boldness inspired me to push through the awkwardness and insecurities characteristic of adolescence. I never fully bought into the effectiveness of “pussy politics,” but I delighted in listening to these women being as explicit, if not more so, than their male counterparts. I found that subversive, alluring, and fleetingly powerful. I do not look at Hard Core and Ill Na Na as progressive, feminist, or even necessarily empowering, but I find something of value in how these albums provoked conversations about women’s sexual pleasure and female sexual desire. As a teenager, I was already pushing against “ladyhood,” and these albums offered an alternative.

In the following year, the debut of Missy Elliott as a solo artist challenged explicit sexuality being the most viable route for female hip-hop artists. Missy brought a unique visual and lyrical style and unparalleled creativity in her musical productions. And only two years after the late-1996 debuts of Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, Lauryn Hill debuted as a solo artist with one of the best-selling and critically acclaimed albums of the late-20th century, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Although Hill had achieved tremendous success in 1996 with the Fugees’ The Score as well as with her legendary collaboration with Nas on “If I Ruled the World,” her debut as a solo artist made her one of the most successful solo artists of any genre in the late 1990s. Her themes of love, politics, and spirituality starkly contrasted with Kim and Foxy’s focus on sex and violence.

“As a teenager, I was already pushing against ‘ladyhood,’ and these albums offered an alternative.”

Both Missy and Hill’s success in the late 1990s indicated that the possibility for a diversity of female hip-hop artists existed. It is worth noting that fewer questions about authorship arose about these two hip-hop icons, which begs the question of, was it the sexual nature of Kim and Foxy’s debuts that raised some eyebrows about who really wrote their lyrics? Was it so unbelievable that if given full control of their lyrical content, women would write about such sexually provocative and graphically violent scenarios? We will never know what stories Kim and Foxy could have or desired to tell, but the stories they offered on their debut projects succeeded in causing quite a stir.

What will always be difficult to digest was the significant input men such as Jay-Z and B.I.G. had on their debut projects. While many artists in their early careers receive considerable assistance on their image and content, it is indisputable that both of these artists were carefully shaped into glamorous, sexualized fantasy women. The extent of their involvement and or complicity with the construction of this sexualized image remains debatable. To say they were merely puppets is unfair and sexist, but Kim and Foxy faced tremendous pressure to become hip-hop’s rapping centerfolds. I also never want to devalue the contributions they did make to the rap game and interrogate their creative works by a different standard than their male counterparts. Even in 2016, we continue to question the lyrical skills of female hip-hop artists like Minaj. And though “beefs” such as that between Meek Mill and Drake suggest that sole authorship still matters in terms of valuing a rapper’s skills, the conversation around ghostwriters for female rappers is ever-present. Many hip-hop artists use collaborators and ghostwriters, but it is women primarily who have their entire legacies questioned because of their personal and professional relationships with male hip-hop artists.

Twenty years later, Hard Core and lll Na Na stand as powerful back-to-back debuts. They continue to cause some pretty fiery conversations about the roles of women in hip-hop, the possibilities and limitations of the explicitly sexual as a vehicle for female empowerment, and the future of female MCs. We can see the influence of Kim and Foxy on numerous commercially successful female rappers in the 21st century. We can and should continue to interrogate the complex effects of their debuts, but we can never deny that these women changed the game.

Want more from The 1996 Project? Visit the links below.
"How Bone Thugs-n-Harmony Took Over the Streets and the Suburbs With 'Tha Crossroads'"
"OutKast Evolved With ‘ATLiens’—and Forced the Rest of Hip-Hop to Do the Same"
"The Best Rap Songs of 1996"

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