The phenomenon of the R’n’B super producer/songwriter stretches back to the Motown era, but it perhaps wasn’t until the 80s that there was a power shift.
The producers with a distinctive sound now called the shots. Pop stars came to them to help facilitate an image change. They worked from the bottom up, using the sound as a starting point for them to create a ‘whole package’ . You saw it with Jam/Lewis and Janet Jackson, Timbaland/Missy and Aaliyah, Sean Combs and Mary J Blige and countless others.
For Destiny’s Child’s second album, they were still feeling about for their sound. Beyonce had nailed her syllabyle bashing, speedily phrased vocal style on Wyclef Jean’s remix of ‘No, No, No’. Meanwhile they’d nailed down their emancipated aesthetic with ‘No Scrubs’ producer Eric Nealante Phillips on ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’. But they hadn’t met their distinct collaborator.
Rodney Jerkins was a protégé of New Jack Swing innovator Teddy Riley, he’d joined Riley’s stable of producers when he was 15. The precocious 22 year old had already scored Number Ones including the all-conjuring, Grammy-winning Brandy and Monica track ‘The Boy Is Mine’.
His modus operandi was: “Greatness means not repeating history but making history.” He seemed like the perfect fit for Destiny’s Child. ‘Say My Name’ started off simply enough, with an a guitar riff and the DC girls in harmonious form but as soon as Beyonce’s lead vocal started up things began moving leftfield. Her delivery was double time, cracked with self doubt and anger (“I’m not the one to sit around and be played”). The pre-chorus part picks up speed. With its eccentric, jungle-like beat the song revealed itself to be a labyrinthine wonder. With the rhythms veering between speeded up and slowed down , it perfectly mirrored the mania of paranoia, the mind-racing panic at what was happening at the other end of the phone line.
The chemistry between Jerkins and DC leapt off the track. Engineer Jeff Villaneuva explained:
They collaborate a lot with Rodney and there is a chemistry going on. They were very relaxed and trusted him with their sound. They’re perfectionists. Beyoncé would cut a take, we’d hold it and she’d want to do it again. She’d top the one we were holding and would just floor everyone in the studio.
By the time the track was released, the band had splintered. LaToya Luckett and LaTavia Robertson had departed, after accusing manager Matthew Knowles of favouritism towards Beyonce and Kelly Roland. They were replaced by Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin. The emotional rupture on the track seemed very fitting. The song would go on to win two Grammys (including ‘Best R&B Song’) and would be named at Number 58 on our list of 150 best tracks of the past 15 years.
Jerkins would repeat ‘Say My Name’’s trick on Whitney Houston’s ‘(It’s Not Right) But It’s Ok’. He later reunited with Beyonce spectacularly on Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’, but ‘Say My Name’ remains his high water mark. Kelly Roland also told Popjustice that the song was her favourite. “It was so much fun to record and we crossed over with that song into a whole new world and it was amazing for us,” she said. She was right. ‘Say Your Name’ was a whole new world of sonic excellence.
Did You Know?
* Rodney Jerkins used ‘Bills Bills Bills’ as a reference point while writing the song.
* Sick Puppies covered the track, changing the lyrics to: “You’re acting kinda shady, ain’t callin’ me baby/So what the fuck?”
* There’s a remix of the track featuring basketball player Kobe Bryant doing a rather dodgy rap.