Most of you may know about the Bechdel test. If a movie does not feature two women on screen without a man present in either frame or conversation, we use the Bechdel test to declare it to be on the wrong side of feminism. Of course, this test is overly simplistic and often inaccurate. The famed lesbian feminist cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, after whom the test is named, recently admitted, “You can certainly have a feminist movie where there is only one woman–or no women.” I agree. I think some episodes of the TV show Entourage are surprisingly feminist in how they bend expectations of masculinity. But I think it also useful to have a metric for measuring gender equality in something as hyper-masculine as the film industry. So it got me wondering: why is there no Bechdel test for music? Specifically, for hip-hop and R&B, two genres famous for being about either a) individual financial success, b) heterosexual prowess, c) defeating one’s enemies with hot rhymes or d) all of the above. One of the most famous movies to pass the Bechdel test is Thelma & Louise because it is all about female friendship. I thought the same might be true for rap songs about friends. So I went on a search for some smooth and/or hard jams about platonic love.
I started with songs by and about male friendship, which was surprisingly easy. Despite the adversarial show that many rappers put on, they really do care about one another. There has always been room for team-work in hip-hop, particularly behind the scenes: from Biggy & Puff to Ye & Jay, male duos are a staple of hip-hop in terms of production. However, more recently, as men are permitted to be slightly more expressive (emphasis on slightly), they are also able to declare their dude-love for each other in lyrics. It is really telling that the only major songs by men about friendship from the 1990s portion of this playlist is one that laments a friend’s death and another is a hyper-violent battle cry for your fellow soldiers in “the rugged slums of Shaolin/Wu Tang Clan strikes again.” Drake is perhaps the most well-known for showing love to his bffs, but don’t forget about Lil Wayne, Rae Sremmurd, and a classic Bill Withers track. So now that we have some idea about the men, what about the women of hip-hop and R&B?
This list was much more difficult to cobble together. Women in hip-hop are beginning to see the profits, social as well as monetary, of friendship as a theme of their songs as we see with this year’s fun-as-hell song by Mila J. “My Main” and Tokyo Vanity’s meme-worthy “That’s My Best Friend.” But it is clear that mainstream female rappers feel the need to compete rather than collaborate, at least at the start of their careers. Even artists as high profile as Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj are benefitting from the showy trappings of friendship without making it the central theme lyrically. The remix of “Flawless” may have a video full of the posing duo in matching jerseys, but the song is really all about the valuing of self. I was actually shocked at how difficult it is to find a Beyoncé song about friendship; the best I could do was her recent 25 second-long cover of a Prince song dedicated to her “darling Nicki.” Regardless of Beyoncé, there are plenty of other R&B legends, from Brandy to Whitney Houston to The Cheetah Girls who are more than happy to not only sing about their best girlfriends, but belt out some ballads as we see in the renowned anthem of black female friendship from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, “Count On Me.”
Researching for this mix did not lead to any solid conclusions about the feminist tenets of friendship (male or female) in hip-hop, but it did allow me to discover the great range of tones around friendship in black music. There’s the tone that’s sad and needy for a pal to pick you up, the I-just-won-the-lotto-and-I-can’t-wait-to-party-with-my-squad exuberance. There’s the my-friends-are-way-better-than-your-friends defensiveness, the apologetic, the mournful, the embracing, the indifferent, the loving, the sacrificial, the subdued. Two of the lesser known but extremely worthwhile tracks demonstrate this range: Jean Grae’s heartfelt “P.S.” and the jump-up-and-dance soca jam “Best Friends” by Nebula868. So what have we learned from these radical frienders? You can show your bud some love in a myriad of ways, but Nicki’s words in the “My Nigga” remix stand above them all as a concise instruction manual on how to be a good companion: “I ride for my bitches/I’m so fuckin’ rich I cop rides for my bitches.”