Why the Beyoncé/Kelis controversy is more complicated than it seems

Bey changed the song, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

INDIO, CA - APRIL 21:  Beyonce Knowles performs onstage during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music And A...
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While fans have been rejoicing to have a new Beyoncé record with the July 29 release of her long-awaited Renaissance, the album’s entrance into the world hasn’t been entirely a smooth one. The record of course lives up to the hype, it’s Beyoncé after all — but in just a week of its life in the ether two changes have already had to be made. Fans woke up Wednesday morning to a Renaissance 1.2 download on Spotify in which the interpolation of Kelis’ 2003 hit “Milkshake” was removed from the song “Energy,” although it can still be heard on the track on Apple Music.

It’s been a complicated controversy, as Kelis has so far been the only one speaking on the matter. When her name popped up in a fan-circulated list of composers and samples before its release, the singer commented on an Instagram fan page to express her dismay in being used on the album without her knowledge. She then posted heated videos on the day of its release to get into more detail. “It’s not a collab, it’s theft. My mind is blown too because the level of disrespect and utter ignorance of all 3 parties involved is astounding,” Kelis said. “… I heard about this the same way everyone else did. Nothing is ever as it seems, some of the people in this business have no soul or integrity and they have everyone fooled.”

Kelis’ beef isn’t entirely with Beyoncé personally, she admits. It seems the bad blood goes back to her early recording time with production duo the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo), whom she believes misled her into dicey contracts that robbed her of her full contributions to her work. The Neptunes are listed as writers and producers on most of her formative recordings, with Kelis only listed as the performer — a contractual theft that she alleges was habitual for the duo. However, that doesn’t mean she’s letting Bey off the hook. Kelis still held firm that it would have been “human decency” for Beyoncé to have let her know that “Milkshake” would be sampled on Renaissance.

It’s an understandably confusing situation, but it starts at recognizing the difference between a sample and an interpolation. The terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same: a sample is when a portion of an original recording is used, while an interpolation is when that portion is replayed, resung, or otherwise recreated in a way that emulates the original. The original version of “Energy” featured an interpolation of The Neptunes’ drum track on “Milkshake,” along with Beyoncé singing “la la la” in a way that many fans associated with Kelis’ performance on the 2003 hit. But as music industry veteran Naima Cochrane pointed out to Mic, Beyoncé’s website offers an additional set of credits, separate from the legally required composer and producer credits, that cites other artistic inspiration a references for the album. That additional set of credits originally stated, “contains an interpolation of ‘Milkshake’ written by Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo and performed by Kelis,” while also citing Teena Marie’s 1988 hit “Ooo La La La” — written by Mary Christine Brockert and Allen Henry McGrier — a similar manner.

In the new version of the song, Beyoncé’s “la la la” lyrics have been removed, while the production remains the same. And in the updated aforementioned website credits, all references to “Milkshake” have been removed, while the references to Teena Marie’s “Ooo La La La” remain. The Neptunes’ names remain in the official, legal composer credits, where Kelis’ name never appeared in the first place.

This latest update comes Beyoncé’s team promised earlier this week to remove a controversial lyric from the song “Heated,” in which Bey had originally sung “Spazzin’ on that ass / spaz on that ass.” Some fans saw the lyric as an ableist slur, and took to social media to express their upset with its inclusion. Reps for Queen Bey said in a statement, “The word, not used intentionally in a harmful way, will be replaced.” A statement has not yet been released on the removal of the interpolation on “Energy,” and Kelis has yet to say anything further now that the sample has been removed.

What will be interesting to see regardless of how the album morphs on streaming platforms, is how the changes will shift the value and perception of the hard copies of the record that have already been sold. The changes could make first pressings of vinyl very pricey and precious to music nerds who want to own an oddity of music history. Ultimately it goes to show that it’s even hard at the top, where not even one of music’s most glorified deities can escape criticism and mistakes in today’s intently scrutinized climate.