Five Years Of ‘4’: Creatives Reflect On Their Time With Beyonce At Her Boldest
Beyonce’s 4, her straightforwardly-titled fourth studio album, was unleashed for the world to hear on June 24, 2011. As her first solo album independent from her former manager and father Matthew, Beyonce experimented with more intimate themes and eclectic sound stylings, setting the album apart from her first three LP’s. 4 seemingly serves as the catalyst for her musical journey of deeper, more personal themes displayed in her self-titled fifth album and her recent sixth opus, Lemonade.
However, we know a ship needs a strong crew behind it to keep it afloat. Beyonce meticulously chooses to work with a select team of creatives who she believes will give her work that certain je ne sais quoi, and develops professional relationships with those who focus on the art as a whole. We thought it would be interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at the album from some of the people who were immersed in its development. Read on to see what it was like to work with Bey both in the booth and in the dance studio from colleagues who aided in the sonic and visual success of this project.
Symbolyc One (S1) was a co-producer on “Best Thing I Never Had.” A Very GOOD Beats signee, S1 has produced for Kanye West (“Power”), Eminem (“Bad Guy” from the Marshall Mathers LP 2”) and The Throne (“Murder To Excellence”).
VIBE: Before you worked on 4, have you ever worked with Beyonce before? And if not, how did she initially get a hold of you?
S1: So, this was actually my first time working with Beyonce, on the 4 album. The way I began a working relationship with her was that I worked with Kanye [West] on the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album, and I had the honor of going to London and Australia to work with him and Jay Z on Watch The Throne. So, while we working on the Watch The Throne album, Beyonce was out there of course, so that’s when I really started to build a relationship with her. On our second trip—we went to London first—so on our second trip to Australia, we really started to build a working relationship. We were in this mansion together that they built that had these three studios, and they built a studio for Beyonce on the third floor. She invited me up to her floor to listen to some songs that she was working on for 4, so I went up, listened to some songs and gave my critique on some of them.
There was one particular song that I thought the drums could be better on, and she gave me the section and was like “go re-do the drums.” I took the session downstairs, re-worked the drums and she loved it. She was like, “At the top of the year, I wanna bring you out to New York to help me work on 4.” January 2nd, I got that call, “Yo, Beyonce wants you in New York tomorrow. Can you come out for a week?” I wound up going out there and I bought one of my production dudes, Caleb McCampbell [Caleb Sean], and Beyonce played us seven records that she loved, but she didn’t like the production on them. We picked out five records, “Best Thing I Never Had” being one of them, and we re-worked those records the whole week while we were out there with her. That was my first introduction to actually working with her, in New York.
Was she someone who you’ve always had an interest in working with?
Oh, absolutely! What’s crazy is, me and my partner who I took out there to work with me on the album, Caleb Sean… this was 2010, so I’d say maybe two or three years prior, we did her “Single Ladies” track. We wanted to do our version of it, so we took the a cappella and re-worked it. We started getting really good buzz because we put it up on YouTube, and people started loving this remix! It ended up on a mixtape, and I actually got to play it for her [Beyonce] when we first met. She loved it, she was like “Man, I think I wanna use the track for another song!” [Laughs] We were really big fans prior to actually working with her, so just being able to work with her, being in the studio with her, was just a dream come true. Truly a blessing.
Was there a specific style that she was going for when you were coming up with the song at first?
No, actually it wasn’t. There was never a case where she was like, “I want this to sound like this.” It was just, “Take these songs and make the best possible production that you guys can do with it.” We got in our room and it was like, what’s the best possible way that we can showcase these songs…? We kind of just did what we felt. She would just come in the room and listen and be like “Yo, I like this,” or “Change this part, I think this could be better,” or “I really really like this section.” It kind of just built into what it is today.
When you’re watching her in her “zone,” when she comes in and she’s kind of feeling out the music, what is she like? Is she vocal? Hands-on?
Very. Oh, she’s incredible. Like, I’ve never seen anything like it. And she’s so precise! Seeing her in the booth? It’s crazy, because she nails stuff to where you can tell she’s practiced and prepared up until that point to where it’s automatic for her, and she doesn’t have to think about it. She’s just knockin’ it out, knockin’ it out, and knockin’ all her vocals out, and then it’s done. And it sounds so good! Like… flawless! [Laughs] You can tell she’s worked for that up until this point, so when she’s in that moment, she’s not thinking about it, it’s automatic, first instinct.
What were some of the tools that you used to create the sounds and the beats for the song?
It was just a matter of how I do all my production. I go through sounds, and if there’s a certain sound that triggers or inspires me, I’ll pull it up and I’ll start building around that sound. It was the same thing for “Best Thing I Never Had.” The tone was amazing, the vocals were amazing. How can we make sure the production compliments what’s already great? It was a matter of going through sounds, and Caleb Sean is an incredible musician. He started playing certain chords around it, and I was like okay, this is it. The intro of the song was the very first thing that he started playing, so once we locked that it, it was like, “Yo, this is it right here!” and we started building around that. We got the song to a certain point, and my dude Shea Taylor came in and he put the finishing touches on the song, and “Best Thing I Never Had” was birthed.
It’s beautiful work. And I know Shea Taylor had a hand in a lot of the stuff on 4.
Shea is incredible, that’s one of my brothers. He’s just an incredible dude and an incredible producer. He came in and put his touch on all the songs to make it what it is today.
How do you think that Lemonade differs from her other projects from a production standpoint?
With every album, I think her approach is she always follows the space that she’s in. She’s always true to that. Lemonade is basically a representation of where she is now. When we were working on 4, that was a representation of where she was at, at that point. She’s always able to capture where she’s at, and present where she’s at to the world through her albums.
In what ways have you seen Beyonce grow as an artist and a performer?
Man, she’s a constant growth, a constant evolution. I would say that in all aspects, in artistry and as a business mogul, period. She’s top-tier of what she does in all aspects, and I think that’s her being able to… it’s her practice. She’s constantly trying to push the envelope and better herself as a songwriter, as an artist, as a performer, as a businesswoman. I think she’ll continue to get better and better in everything she does. She’s very driven and she just has it. She doesn’t have to think about it. It’s a part of her DNA now, so she’ll continue to grow and evolve. She’s really amazing, and being around her, her energy, she is everything. Literally the first day in the studio with her, I felt like I had been knowing her for, like, ten years. It was just like that. I’m from Waco [Texas] and live in Dallas, so I’m Texas-born too, and it was just an instant connection, like “Oh, you definitely Texas!” [Laughs]
Luam is an NYC-based choreographer who worked as a co-choreographer for the music video for “Run The World.” You may have seen her choreography for Janelle Monae’s Pepsi commercial before this year’s Super Bowl Halftime show.
How were you approached to work on the video for “Run The World”? Because from what I understand, there were several choreographers involved.
Luam: Yes, there were several amazing creatives a part of this. Jeffrey Page and Sheryl Murakami contributed a great deal in particular, and there were choreography contributions by really great folks to complete the full story. Frank Gatson, who was the director of her choreography, pulled us in. He pulled me in while we were working on Beyonce’s “Move Your Body” campaign, the Michelle Obama exercise & dance initiative for kids. We were in rehearsing for that and he said, “Hey, we’ve been workshopping this song in L.A. and other places, and she’s looking for some fresh movement for this.” I had an opportunity during the those campaign rehearsals to sit down with her and really understand what she was looking for. She wanted more than just dancing she told me, she wanted something special. She said, “I don’t want just steps. I want them to feel something, to get up and want to do the dance with me.” I really felt that she cared about her fans, her audience, wanted to make sure it was accessible. That it’s not about just impressing folks, but including them, and saying, hey, the little girl in Houston who’s eight years old is gonna see this and want to try it out, or that 36-year-old professional in the office of her building is going to go into the bathroom and see if she can do the moves in the mirror. [Laughs] That’s the type of inspiration I think she likes to engender in anybody listening and watching the music. For me, I just wanted to give her something special, something that wasn’t just a step, but that meant something to me as well. If it’s important to me, then it’s going to resonate with her. She always has a great team behind her, and for this, the folks contributing were giving her movements [she] kept her in mind. They could still be genuine in their style but knew how to make her look great. Seeing the whole process come about, it was beautiful to see each person presenting movement that was true to themselves, that came together through her. Really powerful. At the end of the day, you don’t get a lot of female anthems like that, but she made it cool. It was a definitely tapestry of movement, of power and… it was just cool!
What did you do to draw inspiration for your choreography in the video?
We heard the actual song just a few times, since it was unreleased, but in choreographing I took the rhythm that it referenced and used that as a template for what I could create. I wanted to tap into what was personal, so I went into my culture. I’m Eritrean, born in Asmara, and I just love how our women are so powerful and so feminine at the same time. The movement that they do is beyond intricate. It’s beyond story-telling, it’s masterful. This isolation of shoulders, these hits, ticks, the popping that they do—there’s a style and technique to it that is difficult to learn for any dancer. I did a lot of research and I showed her [Beyonce] these different ways that we swing our hair, that we pop our necks, our chins, that we sway, that we shake and isolate our shoulders, because to me, it conveys feminine power and mystique so very royal and strong. It was also hard! Very technical and intuitive at the same time. I found a way to keep the essence of the style and also fuse it into a sequence that could feel good to her. Working for Beyonce, you want to give her as much as you can, to take the opportunity to have her perform as much of your choreography as possible, but to me, I resolved to give her that one moment. Just the opening sequence. What she asked for, something special and singular, that moment of just “Wow, let me try that.” And on the backend, it conveyed the power, the mystery and the strength of this culture of women. There’s nothing more personal and more meaningful for me than that. I kind of took off my choreographer’s hat for a second and said, “Let me be a fan for a second. What would I want to see?”
What was it like to see Beyonce in action processing the moves and practicing the choreography?
She does not stop working, she owns her vision. To me, owning your vision is not what time rehearsals start and stop; it’s saying, “Do we have it?” You have a horde of amazing female dancers in the room, and the guys she brought over from Tofo Tofo to do their dance [while in L.A.]. They were workshopping that dance for a while. It was difficult to get complete essence of their [Tofo Tofo] dance and not everyone had it, me included! It’s simple yet extremely specific in a very controlled way that you don’t really realize. And Beyonce was relentless. While people were sitting down on break, she’s in the corner practicing. She’s such a hard worker, and it was inspiring to see, to witness. That’s what happens when you have creative and executive control of your artistry. She’s got a mentality of, like, of course, yes, why wouldn’t I keep going until it’s right? Watching her practice the shoulders over and over, I totally got it. She’s done the research, understands exactly what she wants it to look like, and gets it there. She will just continue to practice, making all the elements are perfect and intuitive as they can be. I’m curious to see where she goes next. I feel like there’s more, and there’s always going to be more.
How was choreographing for this video different from other videos and shows that you’ve worked on?
Every project is very different, you know? It’s really top-down in the sense that it starts with the artist and their choices, and it comes down also through their team. Beyonce’s work ethic and search for the right moment resonates throughout her process. It pulls the best out of everyone, to be at their top game. Also this job was different in the sense that I had no idea how it was gonna come out. We started in a small room in a dance studio in New York, they had been workshopping in L.A, there were different creatives coming together and contributing from coast to coast under Frank’s direction and collaboration with Bey. I was curious to see the finished product. Also this one was very personal for me. It was allowing not the dance or choreography part of me to come through, but the little Eritrean girl who grew up speaking another language at home and living a dual culture. It was the first time in my life that they my two identities had come together. It was the first time ever where I could be all of me in one moment. I was whole. I could be East African, and I could also be American creative. I could bring my history to the commercial world, to this industry as a choreographer, and do it through the biggest artist on the planet. For myself, it was an epiphany. You don’t have to leave parts of yourself at the door in your craft, in your art. You can bring all of who you are in what you do.
That’s what I think she [Beyonce] does, and that’s why she evolves. For me, the last three albums have been so different because she’s discovering things about herself and exploring that. I got it. I get it, and also understand it within myself! This is a new place for me that I’ve never been before, and I can’t wait to see what more there is to discover as a woman, as an artist. Without knowing, I think she does the same thing. She’s constantly evolving because that’s what we do! As artists and women, there are so many different dimensions to discover. Being a woman—a black woman—whatever it is, there is so much to discover later. When you’re older, that’s when the meat of you comes out, and when you’re an artist, that’s your canvas. That’s where you unleash your exploration.