The history of Hip-Hop collaborations is a tale of unity, innovation, and the creation of musical magic that transcends genres, pushes artistic boundaries and amplifies diverse voices. The late ’80s and early ’90s marked the golden era of Hip-Hop, that is when collaborations began to flourish. During this period, artists recognized the potential of crossing genre lines. From Chaka Khan’s 1984 electro-funk hit, “I Feel For You,” featuring Melle Mel, to the legendary Run-DMC joining forces with Aerosmith for “Walk This Way” in 1986, and lastly, Jody Watley’s 1989 groundbreaking multi-format hit “Friends” with Eric B. & Rakim, demonstrated the genre’s crossover potential and futurehood.
By 1997, Hip-Hop’s dominance on crossover radio was becoming more pronounced, and women Emcees were sonically expanding the genre. Lil Kim scored one of the year’s biggest hits with Missy Elliot, Angie Martinez, Da Brat, and Left Eye’s “Ladies Night.” Foxy Brown landed in the pop top 10 with her featured hit, “I’ll Be.” Missy Elliot, and Da Brat set radio on fire with “Sock It To Me.” Another notable collaboration shook the table when it arrived in December 1997.
“Girlfriend,” featuring singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Me’Shell Ndegeocello, was one of the standout tracks on Brooklyn-born Queen Pen’s debut album, “My Melody.” Released a year after her feature on BLACKstreet’s 1996 blockbuster hit “No Diggity,” the album included the forever jam, “A Party Ain’t A Party.” But Queen Pen’s ode to same-sex attraction, “Girlfriend,” garnered a write-up in a January 1998 New York Times article, “A Feisty Female Rapper Breaks A Hip-Hop Taboo.” Whew, that title didn’t age well, huh?
“Girlfriend” was a reinterpolation of Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s 1993 single “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).” Featured on her boundary-pushing debut album, “Plantation Lullabies,” which explored identity, sexuality, race, and gender, “Boyfriend” with its braggadocious fusion of Funk, R&B, and Hip-Hop, addressed sex and infidelity. Queen Pen’s reimagination, which included vocals by Ndegeocello, had the lyrics “I be the one that your main squeeze be diggin’, Pull you out your closet, sex so wicked,” and flipped the song’s hook to “If that’s your girlfriend, she wasn’t last night, yes, I had your girlfriend.”
“Girlfriend” rocked Hip-Hop. It was a bold statement about bodily autonomy, sexual desire, and unapologetic queerness. Released just months after Ellen DeGeneres’ historic coming out, “Girlfriend” sparked conversations about LGBTQ identity within the world of Hip-Hop, and questions about Queen Pen’s identity emerged. When asked in a 1998 interview if she was or was not lesbian, Pen stated: “I’m a female rapper. I couldn’t even go out of my way to pick up a new form of discrimination. People are waiting for this ‘Hip-Hop Ellen’ to come out of the closet. I’d rather be a mystery for a minute.”
“Girlfriend” would also get Queen Pen caught in the middle of a longstanding beef between Queen Latifah and Foxy Brown. In 1998, Foxy unleashed “Talk to Me,” a diss track that included a barrage of homophobic remarks aimed at Latifah and Queen Pen. This resulted in a physical confrontation when Queen Pen ran into Brown at the 1998 music convention in Las Vegas. The beef was eventually squashed during a panel at the 2006 Hip-Hop Summit.
Queen Pen would take a three-year break from music before releasing her 2001 sophomore album. Me’Shell Ndegeocello continued to release critically acclaimed and thought-provoking albums, including my personal fave, “Bitter.”
More than 25 years after the release of “Girlfriend,” Women in Hip-Hop continue to push boundaries and redefine bodily autonomy, sex positivity, and sexuality as solo artists and as part of collabos. Perhaps Queen Pen was on to something when in 1998, she stated, “Two or three years from now, people will say Queen Pen was the first female to bring the lesbian life to light on wax.”