Kelis accuses Beyoncé, Pharrell of song ‘thievery’ on ‘Renaissance’


Kelis accused Beyoncé and songwriter-producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of “thievery” late Thursday after discovering a track on Beyoncé’s highly anticipated new album “Renaissance,” released overnight, contains an interpolation of Kelis’s hit single “Milkshake.”

An Instagram fan page noted the usage earlier this week. On Thursday, Kelis commented on a post saying that she hadn’t been contacted about the Beyoncé track before its release. She pointed to the “level of disrespect and utter ignorance of all 3 parties involved” — a clear reference to Beyoncé, Williams and Hugo — and expanded on her frustration in a pair of videos later posted to her personal Instagram page.

“It’s not a collaboration,” she said. “It’s called thievery because the definition of collaboration means we are working together. There’s no working together if you are not checking in to see if everything’s cool.”

Representatives for Beyoncé and Williams haven’t responded to The Washington Post’s requests for comment.

Here’s a look inside one of the highest profile copyright cases from the last decade — and how experts differentiate between infringement and inspiration. (Video: Daron Taylor, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

According to Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist and professor at the Berklee College of Music, there are two main copyrights in music: the musical work as it relates to songwriting and publishing; and the sound recording, often referred to as the masters. A common industry model, called out in recent years by Taylor Swift, is for the record label to own the masters and the songwriters of the musical work.

Neither Beyoncé nor Williams and Hugo were any under legal obligation to contact Kelis before drawing from “Milkshake,” Bennett said, as Williams and Hugo, who produced the 2003 single as the Neptunes, were also the only songwriters listed on it. They received writing credits on the Beyoncé track, “Energy,” and the full credits note that the song contains an interpolation of Kelis’s “Milkshake.” (Interpolation means that “Energy” doesn’t contain actual audio from “Milkshake” but an interpretation of it.)

“Legally,” Bennett said, “this case is open and shut.”

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But for Kelis, who received a best urban/alternative performance Grammy nomination for “Milkshake,” the matter came down to “common decency.” In her second Instagram video, she said her anger was “not really about Beyoncé,” but instead directed at what she saw as “a lot of hypocrisy.” Williams has spoken publicly about how artists should own their own music or be empowered to rework deals, she said. But early on in her career, she struck a deal with Williams and Hugo that she now considers to be unfair.

Kelis puts the Neptunes through a mutual friend when she was 19, and they hit it off creatively. Speaking to the Guardian two years ago about her early music, Kelis recalled that she was “told we were going to split the whole thing 33/33/33, which we didn’t do.” She said she was “blatantly lied to and tricked,” and that she didn’t make money off the sales of her first two albums, both Neptunes-produced.

“Their argument is: ‘Well, you signed it.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, I signed what I was told, and I was too young and too stupid to double-check it,’ ” Kelis told the Guardian.

In the second Instagram video, Kelis reiterated that she knows “what I own and what I don’t own.”

“I also know the lies that were told,” she continued. “I also know the things that were stolen. Publishing was stolen, people were swindled out of rights. It happens all the time, especially back then. So it’s not about me being mad about Beyoncé.”

Beyoncé announced that “Renaissance,” her seventh solo studio album, will be the first in a “three act project.” The album’s rollout has so far been more traditional than one might expect of Beyoncé, who has become known for her meticulously planned surprises; she teased her release with the explosive single “Break My Soul,” which features a sample from the Robin S song “Show Me Love.”

“Show Me Love” is credited to Allen George and Fred McFarlane — who, similar to the situation with Williams and Hugo, earned writing credits on the Beyoncé track. And like Kelis, Robin S was unaware her work had been sampled until hearing “Break My Soul.” But she was pleased by the usage, telling Ebony magazine that Beyoncé is “part of my legacy and I’m now a part of her legacy.”

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