Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, released on April 23rd, was a triumph of sound and storytelling, an intense and adventurous “visual album” (accompanied by an hourlong film) about race, infidelity and marital meltdown. It was also a marvel of project management. Beyoncé, famously controlling and tight-lipped about her creative process, oversaw a cast of nearly 100 collaborators, from Jack White and Diplo to dozens of unknown producers and songwriters. “Beyoncé is really involved at all stages,” says Jonny Coffer, a London-based singer-songwriter who co-wrote and co-produced the stirring anthem “Freedom.” “She runs the show and will say what she likes and doesn’t like and is always making suggestions. She knows exactly how she wants it to sound and how to get there.”
Brooklyn rapper-producer MeLo-X, who had a hand in writing the reggae-tinged “Hold Up,” produced the skittering, not-at-all-apologetic “Sorry,” and scored the album’s accompanying film, was similarly impressed with Beyonce’s process. “She has a way of creating that I’ve never seen before as an artist,” he says. “She produces, alters and arranges tracks in ways I wouldn’t think of.”
Lemonade is in many ways the ultimate collage, a potpourri of competing sounds, images and ideas plucked from a dizzying variety of far-flung sources. “Hold Up” is a good case in point: The song originated with a tweet sent in 2011 by Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, that was itself a re-working of a lyric from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2003 song, “Maps.” Later, he wrote lyrics based on that tweet during a studio session with Diplo, and incorporated a loop of the 1963 Andy Williams song “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” that the producer was working with. Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, provided lyrics and a melody that became the first verse, and British songwriter MNEK added the bridge.
When MNEK met Beyoncé, the singer already had the idea for each song to correspond to a different title card in the film, featuring words like “Intuition” or “Redemption.” “She told me, ‘This is the direction I want the lyrics to go,'” he says. “But the great thing about her team was that they were just like, ‘We asked you to be a part of this because we like what you do, so just do your thing.’ I did a few verse things, and she heard one bit, that middle eight, and loved it.”
Eventually, “Hold Up” made its way to MeLo-X, who finished the song with Beyoncé. “I wrote a portion and added background vocals,” he says. “I love how my vocals were used because it feels like it’s a sample under her voice during the chorus.”
The process was similarly piecemeal for “Freedom.” Coffer had been working in London with British artists Carla Marie Williams and Arrow Benjamin – who had previously been featured alongside Beyoncé on Naughty Boy’s U.K. hit “Runnin’ (Lose It All)” – when he was tapped by Beyoncé himself. “She heard some stuff I’d been working on and asked us all to come to L.A. to jam,” he says. “She asked us to write more stuff and sent us ideas which inspired us to write ‘Freedom.'”
The track, though, was still pretty minimal by the time it got to Just Blaze, another co-producer. “They had the sample idea and some reference vocals down,” he says. “I gave it some shape and power, some of what I’m known for musically, like stadium-rock kind of stuff.” Blaze also adjusted the arrangement. “I felt like the song lent itself to having a guest rapper. Jay was an obvious choice, but I was trying to think of alternative ideas. At one point there was talk of having a guitar solo in that space, but an artist I work with said, ‘This sounds like something Kendrick [Lamar] should be on.’ I went into the studio with Beyoncé and was telling her, ‘There should be someone rhyming in this section, as opposed to another verse from you.’ I don’t remember if I actually said to her, ‘It should be Kendrick,’ but shortly after, I found out he was on the record. It was serendipitous.”
Malik Yusef, a Chicago spoken-word artist and producer who co-wrote the raw ballad “Sandcastles,” says his contribution began with a conversation with Beyoncé at the NBA All-Star Weekend last year and grew from there. “It’s an ongoing, perpetual process,” he says. “Every conversation leads to art. You talk about parenting, it leads to art. You talk about politics, it leads to art.” Despite the song’s personal tone, Beyoncé didn’t ask for the lyrics to be tailor-made for her: “She just explained she was looking for greatness. Sometimes the artist doesn’t say what’s in their heart. Sometimes you have to reach out and touch the artist.”
“Sometimes the artist doesn’t say what’s in their heart. Sometimes you have to reach out and touch the artist.” —Malik Yusef
In the case of the loping love song, “All Night,” the tune’s origins had nothing to do with Beyoncé. “We wrote it for Rihanna and never sent it to her,” says Theron Thomas. “I ain’t never met Beyoncé.” Thomas and his brother Timothy, who hail from the U.S. Virgin Islands and record as R. City, were working last year with Diplo and Skrillex on a Jack Ü album. After the session, Diplo played them a beat that the brothers then wrote the song around. “We just wanted to write a good love song and have Caribbean vibes to it,” he says. Thomas was initially skeptical when he heard through Diplo that Beyonce was interested. “I was like, ‘You serious? I mean, it’s like reggae. How’s that going to sound with her singing that?'”
The production on the initial demo, Thomas says, was spare – “just guitar and light drums” – but eventually the song was filled out with lush strings and an intoxicating horn sample from Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” “I hadn’t heard Beyonce’s version of it until the album came out,” says Thomas. “She killed it.”
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this hyper-collaborative process is that Beyonce seemingly managed to pull it off without leaving her collaborators feeling somehow shortchanged. Lemonade may be a masterful feat of artistic cherry-picking, but in this case, the cherries were happy to be picked. “Beyonce could easily just pick up the phone to the big names, so I feel extremely lucky to have got the call,” says Coffer.
As Thomas puts it, “I just love what she did and how she did it. Me and my brother are excited that we got invited to the party.”