Music

Beyoncé Could Have Made a Phone Call

The controversy over Kelis’ songwriting credit threatens to derail Renaissance’s meticulously planned release.

Beyoncé smiling in a gold dress.
Beyoncé. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Disney

It’s been years since Beyoncé announced an album before its release, allowing for a mad dash for reports from behind the scenes with speculation about collaborators, genre, themes, and her creative process. Music’s biggest megastar changed all of this when she announced Renaissance over a month before its release at midnight. In that lead-up, some reports alleged that the Queen was endeavoring to create her most socially conscious album yet—not necessarily in terms of content, but in its actual production, all in line with the album’s ethos of acceptance, self-love, and letting your inhibitions go on the dance floor.

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This process of making a morally irreproachable album included putting all of her collaborators through #MeToo checks, which reportedly led her to declining to work with some major artists. The reports of these checks comes in light of the allegations mounted against Detail, a co-writer of “Drunk in Love” from Beyonce’s self-titled 2013 album, who was accused of sexual and felony assault in 2020.

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However, in her pursuit for a more socially aware production, it seems Beyoncé made one big oversight. A few days before the album dropped, singer/rapper-turned-chef Kelis revealed that no one in Beyoncé’s camp had asked her for permission to use an interpolation of her 2003 hit “Milkshake” in the Renaissance song “Energy.” Appalled, Kelis revealed in the comments on a fan Instagram account that she found out about her music being used the same way the rest of the world did, claiming the “utter ignorance” of all three parties involved—Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of the acclaimed producing duo The Neptunes, who are credited with writing “Milkshake” and also have writing credits on “Energy”—is another example of how people in the music industry “have no soul or integrity.”

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Kelis—whose hit songs like “Bossy,” “Milkshake,” and “I Hate You So Much Right Now,” undoubtedly solidified her as one of the most influential female voices in early 2000s hip-hop—has been vocal for years about being a victim of manipulation by influential men in the music industry. Personally, she has accused her ex-husband, the rapper Nas, of physical and mental abuse. Professionally, she has gone on record to discuss how The Neptunes tricked her out of the ownership of her masters and writing credits on her own songs, merely listing her as a performer. Because they involve replaying elements rather than using the original recording, interpolations of songs don’t require compensating performers the way a sample would, meaning that while Williams and Hugo are directly being compensated for the Beyoncé track, Kelis apparently gets nothing.

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Jessica Hopper, author and director of the docuseries Women Who Rock, notes that the exploitation of young artists, especially of female artists, and even more specifically of Black female artists, has been a practice in the music industry since its inception. “Because it’s Beyoncé, and she’s rightfully a genius [who has] really remade popular music again and again … people have really reduced this into Kelis vs. Beyoncé,” Hopper says. “Kelis has always been telling the truth, this is not a new story about her or her career. And when we reduce this to Kelis vs. Beyoncé and people saying Kelis should just be grateful that Beyoncé even credited her, when really this is about something that has [a] much longer history for Black women especially as performers and songwriters.”

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How is it that Beyoncé went through extensive checks to make sure she didn’t passively condone abuse by collaborating with any alleged or decidedly abusive musicians—I’m not sure how far even this goes considering Drake, who was flagged for potentially grooming young stars, contributed to the album’s “Heated”—but didn’t have the foresight to anticipate how a highly influential female voice in hip-hop would react to the continuation of a decades-long trend of her exploitation and subjugation? It’s a disappointing cloud over what is, truly, a career-high album. Perhaps even more disappointing is the lack of nuance in the public response to Kelis’s frustration. Hopper laments, “All of these folks who love Beyoncé because of how at the vanguard of pop she is, how bold, strong, and truth telling, and how much she centers Black womanhood in her work. I really want all those people to appreciate and see that in Kelis’s work, and in Kelis’s struggle, and in Kelis’s truth-telling.”

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Did Beyoncé owe Kelis a phone call? A conversation as a courtesy of appreciation from one artist to another? Yes, of course. But is this a problem Beyoncé is mostly responsible for? Absolutely not. The ill-treatment of Kelis has a storied and long history—one that she’s never hid, but is, as she claims on her Instagram, is no longer willing to be passive about. Beyoncé could play her part in giving her a credit on “Energy,” but beyond that the industry—and The Neptunes—owe a lot of reparations to one of hip-hop’s most important voices. As much as Beyoncé can make up for this, even Kelis says her issue isn’t entirely with her. And, I’m sorry, but another Black woman can’t always be left to clean up other people’s messes. As Hopper notes, “this is what the patriarchy and pop wants, is for us to be pitting women [against each other]. That there can only be one.”

Sunday’s upcoming episode of Women Who Rock will feature Kelis telling her story of mistreatment by her label and the industry writ large, yet again, as she’s always done. Maybe if we really listen, we’ll learn that it’s bigger than Beyoncé, and it always has been.

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