Hip-Hop

How Swizz Beatz Gave ABC's 'Queens' A Musical Edge

Eve, Brandy, Naughton, Velazquez
ABC/Kim Simms

From left: Eve, Brandy, Naughton and Velazquez.

After a 20-year estrangement owing to personal travails and jealousies, can four women in their 40s reclaim the ’90s fame and swagger they achieved as R&B and hip-hop stars? That one-line pitch is the premise behind Queens, which, ahead of the ABC drama series’ premiere on Oct. 19, is already picking up must-watch buzz.

The hype is thanks in part to the cast, which brings together three popular ’90s hitmakers as members of the fictional group Nasty B--ches: Brandy (who plays Naomi, aka Xplicit Lyrics), Eve (Brianna, aka Professor Sex) and 3LW founding member Naturi Naughton (Jill Da Thrill). Rounding out the quartet is actress Nadine Velazquez (Valeria, better known as Butter Pecan).

Also driving viewer anticipation is the promise of original songs inspired by the fertile ’90s era of R&B/hip-hop. Swizz Beatz, who has recently been mining nostalgia as the co-founder of Verzuz, was tapped as executive music producer to ensure the authenticity of the Nasty B--ches’ onscreen repertoire. “Eve is my sister,” says Swizz, who broke through alongside the rapper as the in-house producer for Ruff Ryders Entertainment in the late ’90s, later producing for JAY-Z, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and many others. “So the idea of being able to sonically revisit the ’90s where we started and create a strong sound was a win-win.”

Swizz and a support team that includes six writers began crafting the show’s music six months ago. Writing a lot of songs on demand, so to speak, for a weekly series is a feat where “you definitely have to catch your flow and move like clockwork,” says Swizz.

The music for Queens captures R&B/hip-hop’s ’90s boundary-pushing evolution, with artists embracing everything from new jack swing and neo-soul to hip-hop’s empowering battle-rap attitude. As Eve’s character Brianna declares against a hypnotic drum beat during the group’s comeback performance, “I used to be a nasty b--ch, but tonight, I’m a queen!”

The line nods to a central theme of Queens: artists of a certain age still being able to compete in the contemporary music scene, as evidenced offscreen by catalog streaming spikes sparked by Verzuz battles. For instance, Brandy’s own match-up with Monica in August 2020 drove a 444.6% day-over-day catalog streaming gain, according to MRC Data. Now, in the wake of Verzuz, Swizz is pushing for new platforms like Queens that can provide more opportunities for veteran voices to keep climbing.

“A lot of people like to put an age limit on our culture’s music; if you’re 30, you’re old and it’s over,” he says. “This is while many non-African American acts are still making albums and doing tours. Verzuz has shown that it’s not about age. That great, timeless music is about what you bring as a creative — and the access you have to get out in front of people’s faces.”

When it comes to winning over viewers, Swizz believes the shared experience of the show’s stars — having worked in the music industry in the ’90s — will give Queens an edge. “These ladies may be acting,” says Swizz, “but they know exactly what this time period feels like.” Adds Eve: “I try to make sure things from my side are as authentic as possible, because people who know me and my music from that time will definitely know if it isn’t.”

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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