How Queen Pen's Ode to Same-Sex Seduction Changed Hip-Hop
By Alec Banks
"If that was your girlfriend, she wasn't last night..."
In 1997, Brooklyn rapper Queen Pen dropped a single that ignited a small controversy and broke a large amount of ground. With her Meshell Ndegeocello-assisted track "Girlfriend," the rapper born Lynese Walters waded into waters previously uncharted in the rap game, and she ruffled a few feathers.
At the time, Queen Pen was riding high.
She'd broken through majorly in 1996, signed to Teddy Riley's Lil Man production label, she guested on "No Diggity," the massive hit from Riley's R&B quartet BlackSTREET. "No Diggity" shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Song in 1997. It all set the stage for Queen Pen, who would drop her album My Melody in the fall of 1997, followed by her own massive hit single "A Party Ain't A Party" in early 1998.
It was a busy year for Pen, who'd emerged out of Brooklyn with a brashness and boldness that was perfect for the post-Lil Kim, "Shiny Suit" leanings of the late 1990s. Her rise had been harrowing; she was a single mother who'd been a parent since she was a teen, she'd endured domestic abuse and one of her children's father was Darren "Buff Love" Robinson of the Fat Boys, who'd died of a heart attack in 1995 at the age of 28.
As "A Party Ain't A Party" dominated dance floors, Queen Pen had this other single ready to go. Meshell Ndegeocello had dropped the provocative single "Boyfriend" back in 1993; and Ndegeocello, an openly LGBTQ artist who'd been making waves for years, agreed to guest on Pen's remake/reinterpolation of Meshell's first hit.
There had been rappers who'd alluded to same-sex situations but they'd mostly been women rapping about threesomes and girl-on-girl scenarios that seemed connected to men's sexual fantasies. With "Girlfriend," Queen Pen and Meshell Ndegeocello took things in a completely different direction. This was a woman openly referencing her attraction to another woman and warning any third party that she could have the woman if she so chose.
"This song is buggin' everyone out right now," she said as "Girlfriend" began generating buzz in 1998. "You got Ellen, you got K. D. Lang. Why shouldn't urban lesbians go to a girl club and hear their own thing?"
The release of "Girlfriend" drew headlines and sparked conversations. Queen Pen was profiled in the New York Times and was often asked in interviews to clarify her sexuality. A rapper broaching such a topic in the late 1990s was eye-opening to so many people; even as high-profile lesbian stars like the aforementioned Ellen Degeneres were shifting the national conversation surrounding LGBTQ issues/personalities.
She said in 1998:
"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."
As Pen was acknowledged as a groundbreaker by commentators like author Michael Eric Dyson, her sexuality became an ongoing topic of conversation. At a time when gossip surrounding female rappers' sexuality seemed to be constant, Pen was under a specific kind of scrutiny because of "Girlfriend." Questions about Hip-Hop, Black womanhood and the struggle for LGBTQ acceptance suddenly became focal points for her to address in interviews. She reportedly demanded any story that confirmed her sexuality one way or the other be a front page story.
''Even if I sat here and said, 'I'm straight,' I could be lying," she said at the time. "If I said, 'I'm gay,' it could be a publicity stunt."
The song also sparked a long-standing beef between Pen and fellow Brooklyn rapper Foxy Brown. Foxy was in the midst of a three year feud with Queen Latifah, and after Latifah and Foxy traded bars (on Latifah's "Name Callin,'" in 1996, then on Foxy's rebuttal "10% Dis" in 1997), Pen found herself in the middle of a war of words with The Brown Fox. Foxy went after Pen and Latifah both (on "...Dis" and in 1998s "Talk To Me"), with a barrage of homophobic insults. Foxy took exception to "Girlfriend," and laid into Pen for her assumed sexuality.
The bad blood led to an alleged altercation in the lobby of Nevada’s Reno Hilton during the Impact Music Convention in 1998, during which Pen physically confronted Foxy. Though she would dismiss any notion of sneak dissing, fans believed Pen addressed the situation on her 2001 track "I Got Cha" from her sophomore album, Conversations With the Queen.
Queen Pen's boldness in the late 1990s was acknowledged but under-heralded, even as she endured scrutiny and criticism for rapping openly about lesbian attraction. Today, as sex-positive artists like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion broach such topics with vigor, to the praise of progressive rap fans everywhere, it's certainly more than appropriate to recognize how Queen Pen helped kick down the door and shook the stigma off of one of rap's oldest taboos.
"Two or three years from now, people will say Queen Pen was the first female to bring the lesbian life to light on wax," she said in 1998.
"It's reality. What's the problem?"