August 30, 2022 Musicology No Comments

It got heated in a hurry, but here’s why it was nonsense.

In the few days immediately following the July 29th release of “Renaissance” (Beyoncé’s first album since her 2016 Grammy-winning “Lemonade”) the main story was that it contained a sample from a Kelis track and without permission.

Neither of those was ever quite true.

There was plenty of noise. Kelis made public remarks about “theft” and “ignorance” and went back and forth on social media with rabid Beyhive defenders who called Kelis a crybaby and such. Frankly, just about everyone I read had a bad take, entertainment news outlets especially. News moves fast and breaks things these days — misidentifying the Kelis song(s) involved and applying the terms “sampling” and “interpolation” incorrectly. Silly clickbait headlines were everywhere. Even the listing on “WhoSampled” (usually reliable) last I checked was misleading (though, to their credit, there’s a disclaimer). And then the period at the end of the sentence came days later when Beyoncé went with what Scott Galloway would call “the gangster move,” removing the controversial element from ENERGY altogether, reissuing the new version on all the streamers, and deleting Hugo and Williams from the credits.

It’s fun stuff, and particularly for Musicologize’s purposes, the drama around Kelis’s “Milkshake” vs. Beyoncé’s “Energy” touches music copyrights, credits, infringement, and maybe morality, so it’s rather a master class all by itself.

Starting with the basic facts.

“Milkshake” was a big track for Kelis in 2003, and one of the best songwriting and producing teams of the 2000s, “The Neptunes,” were behind it. The Neptunes are the partnership of Chad Hugo and the living, breathing embodiment of all that’s screwy with music copyright infringement himself, Pharrell “Blurred Lines” Williams. You know it already if you’re at all familiar with 2000s hip-hop, but here’s Milkshake:

And here’s ENERGY.

Did you hear it? No, you don’t, because Beyoncé removed it, remember? But would you have heard it in the first place? Probably not, because it was never really there and I’ll get to that shortly.

On “ENERGY, featuring BEAM,” the sixteen (!) credited writers included Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams because ENERGY ostensibly borrowed from Kelis’s Milkshake in the form of an “interpolation,” which we’ll explore shortly. The whole Renaissance album, meanwhile, came with a list of songwriting credits a mile long, owing to the fact that many prior works were incorporated into Renaissance and also, I’d say, to the fact that Beyoncé is generally pretty damned great about giving attribution! Kelis, though, was not mentioned in the credits at all and, again, was more than displeased. (admittedly, it’s complicated.)

But was Beyoncé ever any kind of infringer? No, and did Kelis have a point? Not really, and did Beyoncé do anything wrong? No, and did she even borrow anything from Milkshake in the first place? Well…

What really happened here?

Let’s just for now accept as fact (though it’s not a fact) that Milkshake appears in Energy in any fashion.

Kelis does not have a songwriter credit on Milkshake, only an artist credit. Rightly or wrongly (which someone pointed out to me recently more often than not means “wrongly”), the credited composers on Milkshake are only Hugo and Williams. Kelis has long claimed the Neptunes took advantage of her, and they may well have. I wasn’t in the room. Perhaps she wrote some or all of Milkshake and deserved a credit (this would be the morality part), but she doesn’t have one, so there’s no reason Beyonce would credit her as a writer on ENERGY. That’s how it works. It’s not Beyoncé’s job to second-guess the documented ownership of Milkshake.

So, to be clear, even if Milkshake appears in ENERGY, Beyoncé was never an infringer.

What if Beyoncé hadn’t credited The Neptunes in the first place?

Is this a case of A: Sampling; B: Replayed Sampling; C: Interpolation; or D: None of the above?

If Beyoncé hadn’t credited the Neptunes, maybe none of this would’ve happened. I’d argue ENERGY neither “sampled,” “replayed,” nor even “interpolated” Milkshake. I’ll explain myself. And while we’re at it, let’s get the terminology straight.

Sampling

Does Energy “sample” Milkshake? Unequivocally, no, it doesn’t. The term “sampling” just doesn’t apply here. Most people know what sampling is, but I see overly broad use of the term all the time. “Sampling” in modern music involves taking a piece of audio — it can be as tiny as a single moment, a single drum hit from an old record, for example —  and placing that piece of audio in a new work.

ENERGY does “sample” some shouts from New Orleans artist Big Freedia’s “Explode.” Listen.

Those shouts appear here, sampled, at the end of ENERGY:

No audio from the recording of Milkshake appears in ENERGY. Moving on…

“Replayed Samples”

Does ENERGY contain a “replayed sample” of Milkshake? I’d argue no. But it depends a bit on what we think “replayed sample” means.

Sampling, if you’re doing it legally at least, requires the permission of the rights-holders of both the composition, and the recording, and the latter of these is usually a record company. If you want to sample a few bars from a record, but the price is too dear, a possible workaround exists in the form of a “replayed sample.” (Or “reperformed sample.”) Here you reproduce the portion of audio you want by performing and recording it yourself. There are even professional replayed sample producers who use the same instruments and recording techniques used in the original recording to precisely reproduce a soundalike. It’s borrowing, yes, but not of the original recording, only the underlying composition, for which, yes, you must certainly obtain a license, but it’s generally a lot cheaper, and you’re likely dealing only with a composer and not a record company.

Plus, if you’re very good at reperforming the sample, it’s very likely nobody will know the difference.

Is that what this was? Nope. No element in ENERGY is meant to sound as though it was sampled directly from Milkshake.

Interpolation?

Beyoncé’s ENERGY is most often and probably most defensibly said to include an “interpolation” of Milkshake; as in “Beyoncé’s Controversial Interpolation of Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’ on Renaissance!” Yes, we sometimes hear the terms “interpolation” and “replayed sample” used interchangeably, as just there in Time Magazine, and also as on this “replayed sample” Wikipedia page, but I don’t like it any more than I like “melty” being in the dictionary. All squares may be rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, and if you mean “squares,” don’t say “rectangles” because I won’t know you meant “squares,” in fact, I’ll assume you meant non-squared rectangles.

I would argue the most useful definition of “interpolation” in modern music is a narrower one, where you take a non-trivial piece of one composition and insert it into a new composition. Notice I didn’t say “recording,” but “composition.”

Here’s a great example: Pras and Wyclef Jean had a hit in 1998, “Ghetto Superstar,” that took its entire chorus very directly from “Islands In The Stream,” a Bee Gees composition mostly famous because Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton covered it. The words are only very slightly changed for “Ghetto Superstar;” the original is essentially intact. And Ghetto Superstar credits include the Brothers Gibb as composers and lyricists.
Here’s that. And I’ll save you the Google; that’s Mya singing the chorus.

And here’s Islands In The Stream:

That’s an interpolation. “Islands In The Stream” is inserted, quoted, borrowed, wholesale and intact; a part of the newer composition, Ghetto Superstar.

ENERGY does contain an interpolation. This is “Ooh La La” by Teena Marie:

And I cued you to the right moment in ENERGY.

Now that’s an interpolation — a four-note quote from Teena Marie’s track. And Marie is a credited writer on ENERGY.

Is an interpolation a replayed sample? Yes, ultimately, sort of, but it’s still squares and rectangles. These are better thought of as distinct musical elements and devices.

Does ENERGY even contain an interpolation of Milkshake?

And now we’re at the crux. Does Energy even contain an interpolation of Milkshake? No! What are we even doing here?! There is no lyric nor melody from Milkshake, unless you want to count the monosyllabic utterance “la” as a lyric. Yeah, there are “la’s” and “la la’s” and “la la la la’s” in Milkshake and Energy but not in the same way. Where do we set the bar for similar use of “la’s?” High as a kite, right? Here, the notes are different, the rhythms are different, the usages are different. Without an admission from Beyoncé, I would never say the phrase in Energy was obviously copied from Milkshake. So regardless of who wrote Milkshake, their inclusion in the credits was, on that basis, unnecessary.

On the other hand, who would know better than Beyoncé?

Why did Beyoncé credit The Neptunes in the first place? It could be that at some point in the creation of ENERGY, Kelis’s famous “la la la la la” from Milkshake was going to be referenced faithfully, but the track evolved away from it. And then, cautiously, carefully, respectfully, and determined as Beyoncé is to give attribution (even though what wound up on the track was almost totally divorced from such an original intent), she regarded Milkshake as still there “in spirit.” To Beyoncé, these were still the “la’s” from Milkshake because, at some point, they had been. Possibly.

Was Milkshake sampled, resampled, or even interpolated? By any reasonable standard, I would argue it was not. Much ado about nothing.

At least we got some terminology hashed out.

Written by Brian McBrearty