One of the first sounds heard on Hard Core 2k14 is a man being interviewed about what Lil Kim’s infamous 1996 Hard Core poster means to him. The picture is treated with the same somber magnitude as people recalling where were they were when JFK when shot. Most Hip Hop fans over age 25 will have some sort of vivid memory of the first time they saw a scantily clad Kim squatting on the poster included with the original Hard Core album. At a time that predated streaming Internet porn and weekly celebrity nude leaks, it’s not an overstatement to say Kim’s artwork brought about the early dawning of puberty for some. For the man in the introduction, it was a picture in such hot commodity that fellow inmates were even stabbed over it. For Kim, it is a pixelated confirmation of her worth to a genre she has been working within since the early ‘90s. She is one of the only emcees to have won perfect ratings from two well-respected publications (VIBE and The Source). The original Hard Core has been certified as double platinum. Additionally, she has been the recipient of Grammy and MTV Video awards, and is responsible for four top 20 Billboard singles. So it’s not difficult to realize why Kim has been a relevant and appreciated artist for so long.
When Kim sticks to the lane that brought the above accolades instead of pandering to the latest radio crazes, the rewards are evident. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between on Hard Core 2k14. Kim recounts the details of her storied career to establish credibility while simultaneously following trends to a rather startling degree. This unsubtle notion seeps into the music, ironically coming into transparent focus with the song “Trendsetter.” A fairly impressive, alternating cadence is wasted on lackluster, synth-powered production. The issue is complicated by an off-key Future-esque, sung chorus. Kim’s success has never been powered by her singing chops, but 2000’s “No Matter What” serves as proof she can sing a hook with her natural voice if done properly. But both “Trendsetter” and the Cassidy-assisted “Whatever You See” fall flat due to Kim venturing out of her vocal range and experimenting with the type of note bending best left to a more gifted songstress.
Redundancies aside, a revamped template of what she rhymed about in the ’90s (Louboutin heels and cartel references) serves Kim and her listening audience well, such as when she’s dropping her standard two-syllable cadence over dark keys on “Kimmie Blanco.” Kim spits like the self-assured veteran she is with the following:
“You hustle all wrong, you only chase the fame / Plant a few seeds, that’s how I catch you bird brains / La Jarana of the game, like I’m from Medellin / I put hits out, Long Kiss Goodnight ya’ / You’re all welcome to the problems, we invite ya’…”
It’s familiar territory of high-end label name drops, C-level metaphors and good, old-fashioned shit talking. But it speaks to Kim’s skill set that 18 years after her debut, the formula still has appeal when executed properly (“Real Slick”). Sonically, Kim is at her best with an at least serviceable beat to provide a pocket for her husky baritone. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of such moments.
She misses the mark on “Dead Gal Walking” by overdosing on her trademark faux Jamaican patois, and “Haterz,” once again finds Kim sacrificing her identity to “big up” her sister NIcki Minaj in a blatant mimicking act. According to Kim, the now-squashed beef stemmed from Nicki modeling her style after a demo tape she heard of Kim. Whatever the facts of the dispute, “Haterz” is dragged even further down by B. Ford and his equally bad Big Sean impression. On “Work The Pole,” Kim revisits the now-dated hashtag flow: “I make you take it back…Delorean.” Flow appropriation is nothing new (see Migos or even the legendary Biggie’s work on “Notorious Thugs”) but Kim’s attempts don’t add anything to her material. And the go-to flow from ’96 actually works better when she is focused on remaining true to the style that propelled her to stardom in the first place.