Nowadays, it’s beyond commonplace to see a popular singer team up with a rapper. When Jody Watley did it with “Friends”, it was a rarity–if even that. I’m actually struggling to think of a team up that predates friends, outside of gimmick collaborations between rappers and rock and roll has-beens (see: Run-DMC & Aerosmith¹ and The Fat Boys & The Beach Boys). “Friends” featured a pop star at the top of their game (Jody was riding high off of a platinum solo debut and a Best New Artist Grammy) and a rapper who, although not the most commercial choice, was definitely at the top of their game.
I’ve read in a couple of places that Jody’s record company at the time wasn’t thrilled about her using Rakim on “Friends”, wanting her to go with someone more pop-friendly, like Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith. That may or may not be an apocryphal story. After all, Watley and Rakim were label mates, whereas she and The Fresh Prince were not. It would’ve made more business sense to “keep it in the family”, as it were.
That aside, the team up between the two entities fused together better than it had a right to that early in the rap/R&B mix-up game. The groove (cooked up by Andre Cymone) is tough, Jody does her best sermonizing, and Rakim drops two verses of genius. He actually follows the Whodini “Friends” template-Ra’s first verse preaches individuality/independence and knowing who’s really got your back, while his second verse looks at a romantic relationship that’s falling apart. Widely considered the greatest rapper of all time², Rakim doesn’t water down his lyrical message for the sake of the production, which is certainly more pop-centric than anything he’d laid a verse down on before. Throw some rugged beats over those raps and they would’ve been perfectly at home on Paid In Full or Follow The Leader.
It’s also interesting to watch the “Friends” video, which deftly blurs the lines between hip-hop club culture and queer club culture. Definitely a little ballsy for Rakim to give his sign off on a video that was a bit more daring than standard late ’80s hip-hop fare. Also, give Jody credit for introducing the pop audience to voguing a year before Madonna did.
¹-Aerosmith’s comeback didn’t take effect until a year after “Walk This Way” became a hit. When Run-DMC borrowed Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, the Boston rockers hadn’t had a hit in over half a decade.
²-I agree with this (relatively widely accepted) opinion.