Label: Undeas, Big Beat

On November 12, 1996—when Lil Kim released her debut album—women in hip-hop finally had options, paths to follow and models. There were conscious women who rapped about love, relationships, and social responsibility, like Lauryn Hill. And there were women like Queen Latifah, who advocated for the unity of all women with a more explicitly political edge. And then there was Lil Kim. The first lady of Junior M.A.F.I.A., the lover of the Notorious B.I.G. and his very own artist—the raunchiest woman you ever heard on the mic.

Looking back at the career of Lil Kim can, at times, be heartbreaking. Hard Core was so carefully crafted under B.I.G.'s watch, his influence is everywhere on the album. It was something that Kim—and his fans—relied on a year later when he passed. But there's more to Hard Core than simply carrying the torch for Big's legacy; Kim burst onto the scene with songs like "Not Tonight," where she commands her man to go down on her in lieu of intercourse. She lists her favorite R&B males, referring to them as "R&B dick." Lil Kim rapped about some of the most explicit things heard in rap. And it was all juxtaposed with images of her flaunting her assets in diamonds and pearls. She was Hollywood but still hood.

Things changed after Hard Core. Biggie passed, Kim grieved, and was left to preside over Junior M.A.F.I.A. In the end, she didn't have him to guide her subsequent projects. Still, Hard Core expanded the boundaries of rap, especially for women. Kim didn't need a man but when she had B.I.G., she thrived. That's what makes Hard Core a beautiful story, and a tragic memory. —Lauren Nostro