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What Exactly Was Kelis’s ‘Milkshake’ Bringing to Beyoncé’s ‘Energy’?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture/Beyoncé: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage, Kelis: Prince Williams/Getty Images, Pharrell: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Beyoncé’s new album, Renaissance, is one of her most ambitious albums yet. On this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, we discuss Renaissance with beloved guest Sam Sanders, host of the new Vulture podcast Into It. In Sanders’s words: “It’s trying to do a lot” — but in the best way. The album incorporates seemingly every decade of contemporary popular dance music, from Chic’s “Good Times” to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.”

On Renaissance, Beyoncé goes out of her way to cite, credit, and compensate her influences, resulting in a triumph of musical curation. Just look at “Alien Superstar”: the song credits 24 people, largely because of Beyoncé’s musical nods rather than an exercise in boardroom-style songwriting. Sanders says, “The liner notes themselves are showing you that this woman and her team have a Ph.D. in music history.” The album is an homage to the black and queer innovators of dance, with samples and interpolations of songs both niche and mainstream flying by, like a DJ set curated by house-music pioneers.

But much of the early discourse surrounding the album was marred by a confusing controversy over a small interpolation sample drawn from Kelis’s “Milkshake.” In this excerpt from the latest episode of Switched on Pop, we try to resolve the issue musicologically. Check out the full episode, which walks through the many remarkable qualities of Renaissance, wherever you get your podcasts.

Beyoncé had to change one of the credits on “Energy.” Are you willing to get into this debacle for a moment?
Sam Sanders: I would love to because I have some bones to pick.

We’re going to be in the world of speculation because people like Beyoncé don’t talk to the media except on her own terms, and everyone’s under such fierce NDAs that we don’t get full stories, but do you mind summarizing what has happened in “Energy”?
This song, “Energy,” is borrowing lightly from Kelis’s megahit “Milkshake.” And it seems as if Pharrell and the Neptunes, who wrote and produced the song, cleared that sample, but they didn’t let Kelis know. And when Kelis found out, she was angry about it, publicly went off on social media, and just a few days after Kelis’s first critique, Beyoncé just took out the sample. And what’s crazy, Charlie, is if you listen to the Beyoncé version of this song with the sample and the one without, you honestly can’t tell the difference.

The part that was actually removed from “Energy” was a little “la la la” segment that supposedly sounds like the “la la la” in “Milkshake,” which I don’t hear whatsoever. But the in the Beyoncé version, with the vocals isolated from the track, there’s a slightly different rhythm, a different melody from the Kelis version.* In “Energy” today, those “la la la’s” don’t exist. But it’s weird, because the thing they say that has been fixed is this “la la la” interpolation, not the beat.* I guess the “la la la” would’ve been the thing that Kelis would’ve performed, making her feel there’s more right to it, but she doesn’t own any of the publishing or masters on the original milkshake, she claims that the Neptunes made her sign an exploitative contract.
Pharrell and Chad Hugo of the Neptunes wrote the song. And, of course, we know that “Milkshake” as we know, it is not “Milkshake” without Kelis, but the song itself wasn’t a creation just of her.

I was genuinely confused by this story because, on first listen, I couldn’t originally find the interpolation either. To my ear, the “la la la’s” sound nothing alike and probably are not protectable copyrightable speech. So removing them feels like a cover-your-ass sort of situation that doesn’t, to me, properly resolve this dispute — because the part of the song that I think sounded most like “Milkshake” was the beat in “Energy,” which sounds a little bit like it’s in the same musical family as the synthesizer line from “Milkshake.”
I think they’re different.*

I transcribed and condensed them both onto the same octaves of the piano and changed their key to compare them. They have some similarities. They both start with a little downbeat baseline. And then on an offbeat, they both have this little minor second melodic motif. But they’re in different keys, they’re actually using different scale degrees, and this melodic motif that they use is something that the Neptunes actually used a lot.
It’s the Neptune sound.

Photo: Charlie Harding

It’s very similar to N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin’” — a song that the Neptunes produced the year before “Milkshake.”*

They’re all in the Neptunes family, but who can own that?
I wanna say Pharrell and Chad own that sound, not Kelis. As much as I love “Milkshake,” as much as I love Kelis, when I think of that sound and who it belongs to, the Neptunes were making beats like that for ten years that were all over the radio, and it wasn’t just “Milkshake.”

Some folks have said this is more about a beef between Pharrell and Kelis that really doesn’t involve Beyoncé at all, but she’s involved now. I just think that there are larger questions of songwriting and production and who owns what and who the sound belongs to that are kind of lost in this finger-pointing conversation between Kelis and the Neptunes. I also wonder, had they not credited any of this at all, would Kelis or her team ever have even noticed?

No one would’ve picked up on it.
No one would’ve noticed. When I started to hear about this story and listened to versions with and without — I’m someone who literally studied music composition in undergrad, and I really couldn’t find it myself. You know what I’m saying? There are instances of clear musical theft that are blatant and disrespectful. I don’t think this is one of them.

This interview excerpt has been edited for clarity.

*An earlier version of this post included audio elements that have since been removed.

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What Kelis’s ‘Milkshake’ Was Bringing to Beyoncé’s ‘Energy’