By the mid-90s, a new generation of women was carving out a space for themselves in the male-dominated genre of hip-hop. They ushered in a new wave of street-savvy MCing, through which they were not afraid to exude their sexuality. Building on the foundation laid by their predecessors, this new school of artists challenged the double standards that were entrenched in the genre since its inception. Without question, Inga DeCarlo Fung Marchand, aka Foxy Brown, become a major figure in this, thanks to her seminal debut album, Ill Na Na.
“She got on the beat and murdered it”
Foxy Brown first burst onto the scene as a teenage sensation from Brooklyn. She was discovered at a local talent show by hitmaking production duo Trackmasters, who were working on LL Cool J’s Mr Smith album. They were so impressed that they invited her to drop a verse on “I Shot Ya,” accompanied by Keith Murray, Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and Fat Joe.
“So when she got on the beat and murdered it, everybody was like, ‘Yo, this is it,’” said Trackmaster member Poke in an interview with Complex. “So we did the Def Jam deal and then immediately we started on that record. Everybody knew that we had to seize the opportunity because this was the record that was gonna launch her.”
A household name without a record deal
After appearing on this star-studded posse cut, Foxy jumped on a number of features, starting with the “You’re Makin’ Me High” remix by Toni Braxton, and two cuts off the The Nutty Professor soundtrack, including “Touch Me Tease Me” by Case and Mary J Blige, and “Ain’t No Ni__a” by an up-and-coming rapper named Jay Z. Wielding these high-profile guest appearances, Foxy was a household name before she had a record deal. The stage was set for her full-length debut album.
On November 19, 1996, Foxy dropped her highly anticipated debut album, Ill Na Na. Released on Def Jam, and with Trackmasters at the helm as executive producers, the album harnessed a winning formula of looping R&B songs into hip-hop hits, resulting in a genre-shifting record. Released exactly one week after Lil Kim’s explosive debut, Hardcore, Ill Na Na immediately emerged as the work of another female changing the game. But the MCs were painted as rivals, pushing the false narrative that hip-hop only has room for one female star.
Eating rhymes for breakfast
Ill Na Na consisted of radio friendly jams, club bangers, and street anthems. Additional production contributions were made by Teddy Riley, Havoc of Mobb Deep, Rich Nice, Charly “Shuga Bear” Charles and China “Black Divine” Allah, who crafted the sonic landscape for Foxy to announce her official arrival.
Released two months before the album, on September 15, 1996, the sultry “Get Me Home,” featuring R&B group Blackstreet, was the first single from the project. Sampling the R&B hit “Gotta Get You Home Tonight,” by Eugene Wilde, the song landed on the Billboard Hot 100 and made No. 10 on the R&B charts. Her follow-up single, “I’ll Be,” featuring Jay-Z, was an even bigger success. Landing at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, it remains Foxy’s highest-charting single to date.
In the accompanying video, Foxy eats rhymes for breakfast and looks fly while doing it. Unlike her predecessors and personal idol, Roxanne Shante, Foxy didn’t have to wear baggy clothes and hide her femininity to succeed as “one of the boys” in hip-hop.
Flipping the R&B classic “I’ll Be Good” by René And Angela, “I’ll Be” set dancefloors on fire and introduced Foxy to the mainstream as a solo star. Ill Na Na’s final single, “Big Bad Mama,” featuring R&B group Dru Hill, first appeared on the How To Be A Player soundtrack and landed Foxy another hit. Using Carl Carlton’s “She’s A Bad Mama Jama” as the foundation and capitalizing on Foxy’s popularity, the single was added to a reissue of Ill Na Na and earned Foxy another Billboard 100 hit.
Showcasing skills on the mic
On an album full of gems, the title track showcases Foxy’s skills on the mic over a slick rendition of Commodores’ “Brick House,” with Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man assisting on the hook. Other stand-outs are “Foxy’s Bells” (a rousing cover of LL’s legendary cut “Rock The Bells”), the laid-back groove of “Fox Boogie” (featuring Kid Capri) and “(Holy Matrimony) Letter To The Firm,” an ode to her groupmates Nas and AZ, of The Firm.
1996 was a year of blockbuster albums from some of hip-hop’s biggest superstars, and Foxy Brown held her own with a stellar debut. Ill Na Na debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 and eventually sold over a million copies, reaching platinum status and establishing Foxy as a force to be reckoned with in both hip-hop and the mainstream.
Unquestionably, Ill Na Na found Foxy Brown helping to break hip-hop’s glass ceiling. Her sex-positive image, unbridled confidence, and elite lyricism became the blueprint for future female artists, from Missy Elliott to Eve, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B.