Hours before Beyoncé’s much-anticipated seventh studio album renaissance dropped at midnight on Friday, R&B singer Kelis was fuming.
In the weeks leading up to the release, Beyoncé had been teasing fans with tidbits of information about the dance record. First with the single “Break My Soul,” followed by the tracklist and later, the collaborators, producers, and various samplings from artists including disco queen Donna Summer, Robin S., and Kelis.
But according to Kelis, she was never given a heads up that Beyoncé would be using one of her tracks, going so far as to call it an act of “theft.”
The song in question was Kelis’ anthem “Milkshake,” which was interpolated on the clubby fifth track “Energy,” featuring Jamaican-American rapper and producer BEAM. (Interpolating differs from sampling by tweaking a portion of an existing song for a fresh sound, while a sample lifts directly from a track.)
Using her verified chef Instagram account, Kelis commented on a fan page about the usage, expressing her frustration. “My mind is blown too because the level of disrespect and utter ignorance of all 3 parties involved is astounding,” she wrote. “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.”
When another fan tried to smooth out the tension, saying they “always felt like Beyoncé really admires Kelis,” the singer curtly replied, “Admire is not the word.”
Kelis later took to her official Instagram account to elaborate on why she was upset, saying the women have “met each other, we know each other, we have mutual friends,” adding in the video that “it’s beyond this song at this point.”
“It’s not hard. She can contact me, right?” Kelis said. “It’s common decency.”
“This was a TRIGGER for me,” she wrote in another post. “Milkshake alone is one of the most licensed records of our generation. I am a creator; I’m an innovator. I have done more than left my mark on an era of music and style that will go down in history.”
But while Kelis may have leveled her initial criticism at Beyoncé, her real issue lies with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. She has previously accused her former close friends of “lying and tricking” her into a bad deal, which left them with all the rights to her her music and her dela empty-handed. (Williams, who is credited on “Energy” along with Hugo, did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
This means that even though Kelis is the original performer of “Milkshake,” since she’s not credited as a songwriter and doesn’t hold any copyrights to the song, her approval was not legally needed to give another artist clearance to use the song.
“I also know the lies that were told,” Kelis said in her Instagram video. “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.”
“Pharrell knows better,” she added. “This is a direct hit at me [and] he does this stuff all the time. The reason I’m annoyed is because I know it was on purpose.”
Kelis first met Williams and Hugo as a teenager through mutual friends, and the Neptunes duo served as the sole producers for her first two albums, kaleidoscope in 1999 and wanderland in 2001. “I was told we were going to split the whole thing 33/33/33, which we didn’t do,” she told The Guardian in 2020. “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.’”
She claimed she only discovered the specifics of the deal years later and that the only money she made from her first two albums was from touring. But Kelis says the rift seemed to develop around the making of her third album, Tasty, when Williams and Hugo were allegedly “offended” by her decision to collaborate with other producers. (Kelis’ first two albums were released by Virgin Records, while Tasty — which “Milkshake” appeared on — was jointly released by Arista Records and the Neptunes’ then-newly formed Star Trak Entertainment label.)
While Williams has never commented directly on Kelis’ claim, Hugo danced around the subject in a May interview with Vulture. “I heard about her sentiment toward that,” he said. “I mean, I don’t handle that. I usually hire business folks to help out with that kind of stuff. We made some cool records back then with Kelis … It’d be great to connect with her again somewhere down the line.”
And now, Kelis believes that using “Milkshake” without her knowledge or consent was done intentionally. “This is not like some, ‘Oh, they were in the studio…’ No. No, this was an on-purpose, direct hit, which is very passive-aggressive, it’s very petty, it’s very stupid,” she said. “The reality is that my real beef is not only with Beyoncé because at the end of the day, she sampled a record. She’s copied me before, so there are many other artists, it’s fine, I don’t care about that.”
“But there are bullies and secrets and gangsters in this industry that smile and get away with it until someone says enough is enough,” Kelis concluded. “So, I’m saying it today. I’m coming for what’s mine, and I want reparations.”