Women in Music 2016
How Beyonce Went to Bat for Indie Musicians on 'Lemonade'
Our eyes and ears have had about two weeks now to take in Beyonce’s hefty Lemonade. After the equally epic album and film, even the credits -- at 3,105 words long -- seem like an opus unto themselves.
And that’s no jab at Beyonce. Songwriting traditionalists -- so-called rockists -- might lament sampling and collaboration, when really, they're an everlasting part of popular music and properly crediting them can keep you out of trouble in the future. But even if drums and guitar are the only way to your heart, Lemonade had some surprises just for you, beyond sampling Led Zeppelin and the country strumming on "Daddy Lessons."
At track two, there's "Hold Up," a calypso-tinged reinterpretation of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' signature ballad, "Maps." A track later, there's the Jack White feature on "Don't Hurt Yourself." Garage rock may not be so well loved by tastemakers as it was around the time Beyonce dropped her first solo album, but the genre's spirit of 2003 is alive and well on Lemonade.
That’s not to say Beyonce and her collaborators are out of touch. Yes, members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and White Stripes have enjoyed recent success, and it goes even deeper than that. The immediate reason you hear the chorus of "Maps" on "Hold Up" is Diplo. And, even deeper, a 2011 tweet from Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig is at its core. Diplo was in the studio with Koenig when he decided to put some music to his tweet, a riff on the "Maps" lyrics, including the titular "hold up." Thanks to the super-producer's connections, the demo was sent along to Beyonce and well, here we are. Diplo first popped up in Beyonce credits when "Run the World (Girls)" sampled Major Lazer’s "Pon de Floor" and, once again, he worked as a conduit between the mainstream and worlds not often touched by it.
Here's a sample of the original demo Koenig and Diplo sent to Beyonce:
Next up, singer-songwriter Josh Tillman -- known to most as Father John Misty -- was brought into the fray. Beyonce was impressed when producer Emile Haynie (who has worked with Tillman's friend Lana Del Rey) played her some of his music. Tillman was asked to add to the "Hold Up" demo, and did he ever go to work. "I'm pretty sure they were just looking for lyrics,” Tillman explained, “but I went crazy and recorded a verse, melody and refrain… The first verse and refrain is my lyrics and melody."
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were never in the studio with Beyonce and judging by their stories, Koenig and Tillman weren’t either. Yet they're all credited as co-writers -- an important distinction with permanent impact. This assures them a split of "Hold Up’s" royalties, regardless of how they’re divided amongst the other writers and producers. This means they all have a lasting stake in the song -- a song whose lyrics and imagery are already embedded in our spirit, from an album likely to stand the test of time.
Tapping the alt world isn’t new for Beyonce, though it largely started on her 2013 self-titled album. There were collaborations with then-obscure producer Boots (who appears on Lemonade) and Chairlift frontwoman Caroline Polachek, who lent her otherworldly vocals to "No Angel."
If there’s a trend here, it’s not limited to Beyonce; Justin Vernon of Bon Iver's vocal work for Kanye West quickly comes to mind considering the indie world’s team-ups with hip-hop A-listers and Tidal co-owners. Think about the forces that brought "Hold Up" together. They're about chance encounters and connections that allow them to happen. Last year, we chronicled how a noisy punk band called HEALTH enlisted Kanye's longtime engineer and with a connection like this, who's to say they won’t pop up on one of his records?
There’s an elegant give-and-take in these trips outside of creative comfort zones. Indie rockers give up indie rock pretensions and untouchable stars crowdsource their not-so-untouchable process. It's hardly a new development, but with musical worlds colliding at their current rate, it's a growing one and one that Beyonce just gave a virtual how-to on. Here's to hoping the inevitable followers file their paperwork like she does.