Beyonce’s sixth solo studio album, Lemonade, which debuted as a surprise release the night of April 23 following an HBO special of the same name, is easily the pop star’s most diverse and adventurous body of work to date. Comprised of 12 tracks that collectively tell the story of heartbreak, defiance, acceptance and healing within a relationship scarred by infidelity, the album boasts contributions from dozens of collaborators across all genres of music, from Diplo and Ezra Koenig to James Blake and Kevin Garrett to Kendrick Lamar and Just Blaze, among plenty of others.
Since its release just over a week ago, Billboard has spoken to several of Beyonce’s collaborators about their work on the project, many of whom were largely kept in the dark about their contributions as Beyonce worked covertly until the final hours to prepare Lemonade for its official release. Today, producers Just Blaze and Jonny Coffer (“Freedom”), co-writer Malik Yusef (“Sandcastles”), contributor Big Freedia (“Formation”) and engineer Dave Kutch, who mastered the album from beginning to end, weigh in on their roles in bringing Queen Bey’s vision to life.
Role: Producer and Co-Writer
Jonny Coffer: I’m still not exactly sure how, but [Beyonce’s publisher] Big Jon [Platt] heard the demo of a song called “Runnin’’ [by Naughty Boy] which I’d co-written. He sent it to Beyonce who liked it and ended up featuring on it. I think the idea then came about to see if we could write some more stuff for the album.
I had the vibe [for “Freedom”], which I’d made in like five minutes and then forgotten about. Big Jon was in the studio with us and we’d been working on some ideas and were banging our heads against the wall a bit because nothing was good enough. I randomly remembered that beat and decided to play it to Jon, Carla [Williams] and Arrow [Benjamin, aka Dean Mcintosh], the co-writers on the record, and they instantly all picked up on it. The inspiration was definitely the Kaleidoscope sample [“Let Me Try”]. I loved that it was a rare record and the story of it and the madness of it.
We went out to L.A. to work on it with her late last year. It was a great process and she’s a truly inspirational person to be around, except that she asked me to play Hammond for her. I may as well have been performing on national TV — I was so nervous and could barely get a note out. I was surprised she didn’t send me back to London on the spot.
The level of expectation is so high and it’s maybe more daunting, but ultimately it’s the same creative process. The one difference is that Beyonce doesn’t send her vocals out, so I was working all the time with other people’s demo vocals, with [engineer] Stuart White putting things back together with Beyonce.
The general instruction was just to be yourself, because ultimately Beyonce can make any record sound like a Beyonce record. She’s got such a distinctive vocal and style that she imparts that onto everything she does. She inspired the song and worked with us to get it right. She has loads of dope ideas.
Just Blaze: She reached out to me sometime last summer; I want to say it was mid-June, early July, and said she had an idea she wanted me to hear. And basically it was an early demo version of “Freedom,” and she wanted me to kind of produce the song. The main Kaleidoscope sample was there; pretty much that and just the vocals. It was just the rough idea.
The approach I take is, What moment is this in the concert? Is this the downbeat moment, is this right after the downbeat moment where everything explodes, is this the encore after everybody is chanting her name and she comes back on stage? And to me, this was the big explosion part. I just added my own synths, programming additional drums, additional keyboards, making it feel like more like it was a live band as opposed to just a sample loop. “Let’s make this more than just singing over a good loop and make this an interactive production.”
I’m a good producer; I’m an okay musician. Sometimes I hear ideas that I can do, things I can play, but it may take me two hours to do that part where it might take [other] guys five minutes. And part of being a good producer is knowing when somebody can play a part better than you and having them come in and do it. And once I took the elements [the other musicians] added I took it back it home and spent maybe another day at the most just arranging it and getting it to the point where I loved it and felt like it met what I was thinking she wanted, and sent it over to her. And a couple days later I got the phone call back, “I love it, this is great. Come down to the studio let’s talk about it.”
So I went back to the studio, met with her some more. One thing I expressed to her was, in this one space that I created, we should have somebody rapping that part. I think at one point she was discussing maybe having a guitar solo in the area where Kendrick was rapping. And the funny thing is, in my head I meant to say Kendrick Lamar, but I don’t think I actually ever said it. But either way I was obviously on the right track. He jumped on it, the performance was amazing, he killed it and I’m super happy with the end product.
Here’s the thing about Beyonce specifically. She is one of those artists who is very involved every step of the way when it comes to the record, her overall vision for a project, the direction and how it should be rolled out. She gave me the direction in terms of how she wanted it to feel, what she wanted it to sound like, the feeling she wanted the music to deliver, and she’s the one who had the idea to come get me. That’s production in itself. So her name on that record is 100 percent right as a producer.
There’s so many different levels of interpretation to take from that record. You have the one narrative that she has throughout the whole project of a woman who’s been done wrong by her significant other. But then she turns the whole thing on its ear and has the visuals of the mothers with pictures of their sons who have been slain by police. I think overall it’s just a record about overcoming struggle and getting to a better place, a more powerful place and a free place. And I just did my best to complement that message musically.
Malik Yusef: I’ve always been working with Beyonce; she’s my friend. But my co-writer on the song, Vince Berry, got involved with another friend of mine, Midian [Mathers]. What happened was, Beyonce was doing this powerful album with these tributary elements showing the ups and downs in anything; nothing is picturesque, nothing is perfect, there’s no heaven except for inside you and it depends on how you conduct yourself. Beyonce’s obviously a genius, so when she puts her pen to anything, her vocal talent and her production talent to anything, it comes out extraordinary.
I got it in my brain in like 2014 after I finished this project called the Home Project for the Hip-Hop Caucus. I had some leftover components in my brain, and that was the melody, subject and the words. So I got down with Vince Berry and developed it, and then further developed it with Midian, and it became something that Beyonce wanted to put her touches on. She wanted to come in and structure it the way she saw fit as an artist and a presenter of art.
[She finished it] about two weeks ago; [it was] just better, polished, you know? She knew what she was looking for. “Oh man, this fits right in.” But she’s a genius, so she can pick pieces — like any genius can do — and conflate them into an actual new being, a new concept, a new construct.
You know what’s different? Beyonce has grown. She’s matured. Everything must change, but some things don’t change for the better. Beyonce has changed for the better. It’s a rare thing to see a person continue to evolve constructively.
I don’t even know how those songs came into being, I just know that she’s the [center] of everything. So any words that you say, any vibe that you have, any love that you have, because she’s a genius, geniuses like her can take it and make it into something that you wouldn’t even imagine.
I’ll speak for myself: I’m a fan of her as a woman, as an artist, as a thought leader, as a revolutionary being in our current world structure, and if you’re a fan of somebody and a supporter then you support their ideology and their desires. And I think that everybody involved in that project has and had that same ideology — that this is her project and we get to serve her.
Role: Background Adlibs
Big Freedia: I was laying in my bed relaxing and, you know, Beyonce’s publicist called and was like, “Hey, this is Beyonce’s camp, Beyonce wants to speak with you directly, she’ll be calling you in a few minutes.” And I was just sitting there anxiously waiting by the phone…
I didn’t know what it was about, I was just freaking out. [Laughs] So when she did finally call and we spoke, she said she wanted me to do some voice over on the song and explained the concept to me — her being a black Southern girl, no matter how big she gets or whatever, she’ll still be a black Southern girl. And she told me a little bit of what she was talking about, like how she keeps hot sauce in her bag, stuff like that.
And then they sent me a very small clipping of where they wanted me to do the voiceover, a very small part that they had looped. I went to the studio the next day and I was just ready to spit a verse, ad-libs and all that. I did some talking stuff, they called back and was like, “Oh my God, this is it.” Management stepped in and took over on the paperwork side, and next thing I know the song was out in three days. She called me when it came out, and I just was very excited and humbled. You know, we’d hung out before, but just to get this call to be on this track was just bigger than life for me and I was just so grateful.
It kind of just came off the top of the head. It was just like, throw some New Orleans slang out there; we make sure you say baby, we have certain slang here and people like to hear us say [drawls], “Oh, baby,” or, “I’m so New Orleans,” or whatever. So I was just talkin’ shit. But she did say her concept was she came to slay, she’s back by popular demand, and certain things. So they gave me a few little pointers, and I just was able to do whatever I wanted to do with it.
[When I first heard it] I was just losing it. I lost it like everybody else around the world did, and I was just like, “Yass, yass, yass!” I was just at home screaming. I couldn’t believe that my voice actually made it on there. When I did finally officially hear it, my phone just started blowing up. “Oh my God, I heard you on the Beyonce song.” All of my team, all of my bosses, everybody started texting me like, “I’m so proud of you, oh my God.” [Laughs]
Song: All Tracks
Role: Mastering Engineer
Dave Kutch: [Beyonce’s A&R] Teresa LaBarbera Whites and [engineer] Stuart White contacted me to master Beyonce’s tracks on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack [remixes of “Haunted” and “Crazy In Love”]. This led to us working on the single “Formation” for the Super Bowl and [later] the mastering for the whole album. It was still a mystery to me when they were going to be ready [for mastering]. And then about four weeks ago I got the phone call and went out L.A. to work with them there.
[The sessions were] peaceful, initially. We were ahead of schedule and I got to do the majority of my mastering working alongside Stu White and Tony Maserati in L.A. for about four days. But when I was back at my studio in New York, the four days leading up to the release date there was little or no sleep at all. Stu, Tony and [second engineer] Ramon Rivas were sending me revised mixes hourly that had new arrangements to accommodate new edits in the movie. We literally delivered the last bits of music to the movie editors about 24 hours before the movie aired. It was all hands on deck.
All the balls were in the air at the same time at that point; Beyonce was finalizing the movie, the album, stage design and tour rehearsals, each of which has at least 20 different moving parts. Working on any one of these is mentally and physically exhausting; doing all four at once is superhuman. Nobody works harder.
By the time I came in, the vision and goal of the sound had been pretty much there; I was just here to put the icing on the cake. [But] feedback was continually provided and it always resulted in something “more,” for lack of a better word. On the music side, Stu and Teresa were definitely my moral compass. When working with a collective of such incredibly talented people the overall result is better than the sum of its parts.
Normally I work at my studio, The Mastering Palace in New York City. For Lemonade, I got out of my comfort zone and shipped a bunch of my gear out to L.A. and set up in the mix room where Stu was mixing at Pacifique Studios [in North Hollywood]. Rather than waiting for emails or comments it was instant feedback, back and forth. And sometimes rather than fixing something in mastering we could make subtle adjustments right then and there.
We don’t get a lot of completed, full albums nowadays that tell stories and have a flow from the beginning to the end and keep you engaged as a listener. This album does exactly that.
All interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.