It’s both popular and beloved, a rarity for the franchise.
The surprise success story of the ever-expanding Fifty Shades of Grey franchise isn’t the film adaptation, which needed only two weeks to draw BDSM-curious viewers to the tune of over $400 million worldwide, but the film’s soundtrack — a sexy/cool compilation that recently became the fastest-selling multi-act soundtrack in a decade. Featuring original music by Beyoncé, Sia, The Weeknd, and Ellie Goulding, the album, released by Republic Records, sold more than 428,000 units in its first two weeks, according to Nielsen Music, and this week sends two hit singles to the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 (Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do,” No. 3; and The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” No. 9).
Most impressive of all? It’s actually good. Where many critics have argued that the novel and film versions of Fifty Shades succeeded in spite of themselves, the soundtrack has been widely received as an artistic achievement as well as a commercial one. Created out of an ambitious collaboration between Republic and Universal Pictures, the album is something of a throwback to the golden era of movie soundtracks in the late 20th century — Juice, Romeo + Juliet — with several original songs deployed during key plot moments.
“We really wanted the songs to be part of the fiber of the film — nothing crowbarred in or just auxiliary to the experience,” said Mike Knobloch, president of film music and publishing at Universal. “There was a very deliberate effort to create as much original material as possible, to tailor the production, the lyrics, and the performance.”
Work on the Fifty Shades soundtrack began nearly two years ago, with meetings between Knobloch’s division at Universal, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, independent music supervisor Dana Sano, and the entire Republic A&R team. Given the market potential of the franchise (the book has sold over 100 million copies worldwide), the group allowed itself to indulge in what Knobloch characterizes as “blue sky” conversations — with no artist, no matter how large, considered to be off the table.
“If we could get anyone,” Knobloch recalls thinking, “Who would we get?”
Further spurring early meetings was the unique role music plays in Fifty Shades as originally written by E.L. James. Billionaire Christian Grey’s seduction of virginal literature student Anastasia Steele is peppered with unusually specific music cues, including several classical pieces and songs by contemporary artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Britney Spears.
“We were thinking of artists that would be in everyone’s own little personal playlist as they were reading the books,” said Tom Mackay, EVP and general manager, West Coast at Republic. “They had to be able to convey a vibe that was sensual and soulful, a certain taste, texture, and tenor.”
The group compiled a list of dream artists, many of whom were not signed to Republic or its parent Universal Music Group, and began making calls to managers, labels, and publishers. Despite the cultural and commercial momentum of the franchise, they faced significant challenges. One problem was typical of soundtracks: At any given moment, many artists are simply unavailable due to the time constraints of their own touring or promotional schedules. But there were also particular issues related to the book itself, considered by some to be either too racy or too lowbrow. Knobloch and Mackay say there were a few, though not many, artists who turned them down flat.
Ultimately, 12 artists and 14 songs, all but two original, were chosen for the soundtrack, with two additional pieces of score composed by Danny Elfman. Beyoncé was among the first calls.
“I think we made a pretty good pitch,” said Knobloch of approaching Queen Bey, whose smoldering reinterpretation of her hit “Crazy in Love,” produced by Boots, appeared in the first trailer for the film as well as on the soundtrack. “She’s being offered amazing things on a daily basis, but we gave her a compelling explanation of why the movie was going to be huge and why we felt we were making a great film that was going to do really well on a global scale. She thought it was an opportunity to do something that aligned nicely with her brand and agenda.”
To lure Sia, the Australian singer/songwriter of “Chandelier” fame, Knobloch and Sano visited her at home with a laptop and played the scene they had in mind on-site. It’s a pivotal moment, when the two protagonists have an ecstatic and intimate first sexual encounter.
“She played us songs and we would say, ‘That’s good, but could it be more of this, or less of that?’” said Knobloch. “By the end we left her spinning her wheels about what she had to do to deliver just the right song to us for the film.”
Ellie Goulding’s dream-pop ballad “Love Me Like You Do,” the result of a call from Mackay to super producer Max Martin’s manager, has emerged as the soundtrack’s biggest commercial breakthrough and a fixture on Top 40. But arguably the artist to have benefited the most from the project is The Weeknd, a post-radio lothario who, prior to writing “Earned It” for Fifty Shades (released in January and nearing 58 million streams on Spotify), had never produced a hit single.
With a large, loyal fan base and a reputation as a fierce steward of his own image, The Weeknd could have phoned in his contribution, focusing instead on lucrative touring prospects or his own pending new album. But, as was the case with others involved in creating the soundtrack, he decided to take the opposite route.
“He was unbelievable during this process,” said Mackay. “Our A&R staff brought him in very, very early and he worked on a number of songs for a number of scenes. Some were working and some weren’t, but he just kept at it, and kept at it, and kept at it. In the end, he wrote ‘Earned It’ and it’s the biggest song of his career to date. It’s the only song that’s in the movie twice.”
Everything is subjective, of course. But your opinion is wrong.
You know who Rodney âDarkchild’ Jerkins is.
He’s the guy behind some of the greatest songs you’ve ever danced to. He’s a super-producer, a talented musician and songwriter, and a blessing to the world, most recently winning a Grammy for his work on Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”.
Here is an important — and unarguable — ranking of his best work.
19. Telephone – Lady Gaga Ft. BeyoncÃ©
Bombast and pyrotechnics, this. But the chorus is fire, and the entire Bey feature is a jam all on its own.
18. Feedback – Janet Jackson
Yes, this goes hard. But there’s something missing from this for me. It just sounds a little cold, even with the divine Ms Jackson doing her thing over the skittery beat.
I’d dance to it in a club, though.
17. I Can Love You – Mary J. Blige Ft. Lil’ Kim
This earlyish Darkchild (1997!) is just the easiest track to nod along to, so effortless.
Mary J’s keening vocals (at one point she modestly tells the object of her affection: “I can love you/a little better than she can,” which is quietly heartbreaking) are the perfect accompaniment to the simple groove. It sounds both completely of its time, but also timeless.
Shoutout to Lil’ Kim’s verse, too (with its gentle reference to Biggie).
16. Holler – Spice Girls
This late Spice Girls single (minus Geri, and before the Grand Hiatus) really works, but that’s not because of the especially great vocals (Mel C excepted). In fact, Mel B’s adlibs almost kill it.
But it’s catchy as hell, and so danceable.
15. Revolution – Kirk Franklin
Political gospel? Why the heck not?
Darkchild can do anything.
14. Cater 2 U – Destiny’s Child
Dodgy lyrics aside (“My life would be purposeless without you,” Bey sings in the opening verse, earning a sharp side-eye), this is a flawlessly produced slow jam with one of the most laidback and romantic grooves Darkchild’s ever made. There’s no beating Passionate Bey on vocals, and she’s out here in force.
13. If You Had My Love – Jennifer Lopez
Here’s how you know Jennifer Lopez was not playing around: This was the debut single on her debut album. So casual.
The lyrics are not the strongest, and it’s not even the best ever J-Lo vocal offering (that’s a list for another day) but it is a mid-tempo silky jam, and catchy as hell, so it’s easy to forgive its flaws.
Perfect to sing with one hand on your heart, in the mirror.
12. Say My Name – Destiny’s Child
If Drake is sampling you almost 15 years later, chances are you did something extremely right. This track is unnaturally right.
It’s the mixed-upness of “Say My Name” (perfectly telegraphing the up-and-down play of the lyrics: are you cheating or nah?) that make it a straight up banger. And the production is so tight and sure of what its doing, it steals your attention away from the fact that the band recently changed lineup, and this is the video in which you meet Farrah and Michelle for the first time. Plus! The break – “yea, yea, yea yea” – is poetry is song. A stone cold classic.
PS: shoutout to the most iconic Darkchild tag of them all: “Darkchild nine-nine”.
11. DÃ©jÃ Vu – BeyoncÃ©
“Bass…Hi-hat…Jay” It’s the classiest of openings, isn’t it?
On an album as jam-packed with bangers as B’Day, Déjà Vu is for me, one of the finest Bey singles ever produced. Darkchild went BIG on this, throwing everything at Beyoncé, who brought in some magic of her own. The high energy is infectious, and gives the feeling of having been a blast to record.
Big vocals, big production, big tune.
10. Can’t Leave âEm Alone – Ciara Ft. 50 Cent
This is not one of Ciara’s best-known, but it should be.
Darkchild gives her a classic handclap beat, plus the twinkliest of R&B accents. They are the perfect accompaniments for Ciara’s whispery soft vocals. “I can’t leave ‘em alone/I tried that good boy game/But the dope boy’s turning me on,” she sings like a lovefool. And then 50 Cent shores it up with bars like: “My intentions are good/I can’t help it, I’m hood/I wouldn’t change if I could/you shouldn’t tell me I should.” So at least they’re well-matched.
So fresh, it sounds like summer.
9. I’m Good – Blaque
This 2004 banger was too good to soundtrack a film as terribly bland as Honey (which, full disclosure: I saw at the cinema). Side note: There is a depressing number of now-defunct black girl groups from the mid-2000s.
This is low key girl empowerment (“I don’t like what you’re kickin’ son/ now leave,” they dismiss some unworthy creature), wrapped up in Darkchild’s beat wonderland. And the hype tag on this one is an idiosyncratic “Darkchizzle!” Which is fun.
8. You Rock My World – Michael Jackson
I was full of trepidation when they announced a new MJ record. What I loved of his music was either my age or older than me, and I worried. But then I heard this, and realised my own foolishness. How could Darkchild fail with MJ?
This is so smooth! The once sweet voice sounds as fresh as it ever did, and Darkchild’s production is sympathetic to MJ’s legacy, with lovely harmonies in the chorus.
Shoutout to MJ’s last great single.
7. Don’t Wanna Be A Player – Joe
I know it can’t be true, but this feels like this is the only thing I listened to in 1997.
The vocoder intros us to what would become the R&B love song to beat for the next 15 years, when Joe’s smooth and slightly nasal crooning takes over. “I think I’ve found someone I could live my life for, “ he sings, “I’m giving up the booty calls”. Only if you’re sure, mate.
And even though people don’t belong to people – and you know this – you sing along, sighing, when Joe finishes the hook with: “I’m yours, you’re mine for sure”. Aah, memories.
6. Still Not A Player – Big Pun Ft. Joe
I mean, technically, this isn’t a Darkchild jam per se. But it builds on one of his best ever productions, Joe’s “Don’t Wanna Be A Player”.
Joe’s falsetto opens it up, but that Brenda Russell keyboard loop – calibrated perfectly to make you bounce – runs away with the song. It’s such a canny song: Big Pun’s sometimes breathless bars (that don’t bear listening to too closely) married to Joe’s smooth R&B voice. By the time you’re singing along to “Boricua/morena” with Joe, the work’s already done.
What a jam.
5. He Wasn’t Man Enough – Toni Braxton
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? From the moment Toni says his name in a husky whisper (followed by a laugh) right at the top of the song, you know you’re in for a treat. “Who do you think I am?” she asks this lesser rival. I don’t know, Toni. I DON’T KNOW.
Again, the beat is king here, as are Toni Braxton’s slinky vocals. And then comes the bridge, when he strips it back, and lets Toni fly. She soars.
A thousand hen nights rejoice.
4. What About Us – Brandy
And then Brandy launches into an impassioned but also somehow detached verse about how her man’s done her wrong, and should “close the door behind you”, but also, how about all these broken promises? “What about us?” she implores.
This is made for dancing with your girls at a house party, after too much food and drinks, when you’re skirting the line between genuine heartbreak and trying to just shake it off.
3. Top Of The World – Brandy
I was 16 when this came out, and it is so good I developed a crush on Ma$e. MA$E! That’s how good this is.
The drums are ridiculous, and Brandy pours her honeyed gospel voice all over it. It sounds exactly like a song a teenager would sing (Brandy was 19), except this teen was a huge-selling pop star to boot. “My life is real so please don’t get it twisted/Problems the same and got to be dealt with/These are the things I wish you knew”.
By the time Ma$e comes back for his verse at the end, Brandy’s “top of the world” refrain is permanently etched on our brains. “Slow down, Ma$e – you killin ‘em,” she instructs coolly.
Too late. This is perfect.
2. It’s Not Right But It’s Okay – Whitney Houston
Whitney’s voice was not what it used to be by this 1999 album, but you couldn’t tell when she damn near snarled out the first line of this: “Friday night/you and your boys went out to eat…” And then right after she talks about finding his credit card receipt, the beat kicks in, bringing with it the chorus (of women): “It’s not right, but it’s okay/I’m gonna make it anyway”.
It doesn’t matter if your partner is the height of loveliness and attention, after hearing this song, you’re going to pick a fight when they get home.
Everything is just spare enough in order to amplify the simmering rage of the lyrics. This is The Lick. One of his finest.
1. The Boy Is Mine – Monica and Brandy
That hazy keyboard opening is like the harp effect in the dream sequence on a teen sitcom; it is also the start of perfection that doesn’t let up for four minutes.
It’s unequivocally his greatest, right? His work with Brandy always seemed a cut above the rest, and this is their finest collaboration. There are no missteps; it’s all killer, no filler. A duet that favours no one singer, and everyone on their A game.
What. A. Song.
James Brown’s dance moves don’t mean what you think they mean.
1. Prince reportedly sent Weird Al Yankovic a telegram back in 1986, commanding the comedian to avoid eye contact with him during the entirety of the American Music Awards show.
2. Though little was known about eating disorders in his heyday, Louis Armstrong showed signs of bulimia. He binged and purged with the help of laxatives; he was often pictured with his laxative of choice, Swiss Kriss, and recommended it to his friends with the catchphrase “Satch says: Leave it all behind ya!”
3. As a teen, Gil Scott-Heron wrote a number of short detective stories in the vein of Agatha Christie.
4. Snoop Dogg reportedly sold weed to Cameron Diaz back when the two attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School.
5. Lil Wayne‘s debut album The Block Is Hot, released when the rapper was only 17 years old, is nearly profanity-free because of his mother’s wishes.
6. Nas almost had Jesus in a headlock on the cover for his 1994 album Illmatic.
7. B.B. King named every guitar he owned Lucille after an incident at one of his performances. Two men had a physical altercation over a woman named Lucille; during the scuffle, they knocked over a barrel of kerosene that heated the venue and subsequently set the venue on fire. All persons inside were evacuated, but King ran back into the burning building to rescue his $30 Gibson guitar. The guitar thus became known as Lucille, as a reminder to King never to run into burning buildings or fight over women.
8. At the height of McCarthyism in the ’50s, Lena Horne was blacklisted as a Communist over her participation in the Civil Rights Movement and her friendships with fellow activists Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois.
9. Getting fired from Office Depot inspired Janelle Monae to write “Letting Go,” the song that would reach the ears of OutKast‘s Big Boi and launch her career.
10. When a drunken emcee announced The Sledge Sisters as “Sister Sledge” on stage, the quartet rolled with it and went on to use the error professionally.
11. James Brown‘s famous dance moves were coded directions for his stage band; every hand movement meant Brown had noticed a bum note or had seen a pair of unshined shoes.
12. Jimi Hendrix often switched up the frequently misheard lyrics to “Purple Haze” in his live performances; he swapped out “kiss the sky” for “fuck the sky” during a Seattle rainstorm, and for “kiss this guy” during another performance as he pointed to drummer Mitch Mitchell.
13. Using a modified board with elevated squares, Ray Charles frequently played chess with friends and band members. In 2002, Charles faced off against (and lost to) chess grandmaster Larry Evans.
14. Chuck Berry supplemented his musician’s income by working as a trained beautician.
15. Billie Holiday was inspired to write “God Bless the Child” after she and her mother had an argument over money.
16. Marvin Gaye once shaved his head in protest of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s wrongful murder conviction.
17. In The Last Days of Left Eye, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of TLC voiced her objection to the glorification of revenge-cheating in the group’s hit single “Creep.” Left Eye threatened to wear pieces of black tape over her mouth during the filming of the music video, but she let her resentment creep away.
18. Stevie Wonder led the campaign to have Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday designated as a national holiday.
19. Mary J. Blige‘s debut album title What’s the 411? was a shout-out to her former job as a directory assistance operator.
20. Despite his lyrics to “In Da Club” and “P.I.M.P.,” 50 Cent abstains from alcohol and drugs, citing a “bad experience” with alcohol and an outsider’s view of what drugs can do to a person.
22. Gloria Gaynor won the first and only Grammy for Best Disco Recording with “I Will Survive”; the recording academy discontinued the category after disco fell out of public favor.
23. UPenn graduate John Legend turned down admission offers from Harvard and Georgetown at the tender age of 16.
25. In spite of his fame and wealth, Ludacris drove his â93 Acura Legend for over a decade, racking up over 244,000 miles on the vehicle.
26. Biggie Smalls learned that another rapper had trademarked the name “Biggy Smalls” years earlier, so he changed his moniker to The Notorious B.I.G.
27. When presented with the instrumentals for eventual hits “Are You That Somebody?” and “Try Again,” Aaliyah initially didn’t like them, but recorded the songs.
28. Ol’ Dirty Bastard once saved a 4-year-old girl who was trapped under a car that hit her; Dirty and his friends lifted the car off the girl, who was then rushed to the hospital for her injuries.
29. Smokey Robinson got his stage name from his childhood nickname Smokey Joe, a “cowboy” nickname bestowed upon him by his uncle.
30. Miles Davis performed with his back to the audience; it made it easier for him to give his band signals.
31. Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav can play 15 instruments, from French horn to oboe to xylophone.
33. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton recorded “Hound Dog” and “Ball ân Chain” long before Elvis or Janis Joplin did.
35. Missy Elliott accidentally filmed “Work It” while drunk; director Dave Meyers forgot to replace the wine glass in the restaurant scene with water. After the shot had been filmed seven times, Missy was thoroughly inebriated.
36. As a student at the Baltimore School of Arts, Tupac Shakur took ballet classes.
37. Jazz legends Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Illinois Jacquet were all arrested for gambling in a racially motivated sting set up by the vice squad of Houston’s police department.
38. Salt-N-Pepa‘s “Push It” began as a joke. Producer Hurby Azor came up with the synth line: Salt-N-Pepa’s Cheryl James and Sandra Denton found it “corny” and added the now iconic “Ooh, baby, baby” to mock it.
40. Janet Jackson initially balked at the idea of collaborating with brother Michael, citing a desire for her own fame separate from the Jackson name, but eventually caved in. Thankfully she changed her mind; the siblings went on to give us “Scream.”
41. Dizzy Gillespie‘s signature cheek pouches, caused by his blowing techniques, are now considered a medical condition.
42. BeyoncÃ©, who is now recognized as a style icon for her red carpet looks, was a staunch tomboy who refused to wear dresses as a child.
43. As a high school sophomore, Lauryn Hill appeared on daytime soap As the World Turns as Kira, a troubled teen.
44. Erykah Badu was fined $500 and charged with a misdemeanor for public nudity during the filming of her music video for “Window Seat.” Badu intended her nudity to be a statement of liberation against groupthink.
46. Mariah Carey‘s high school nickname was “Mirage,” thanks to her many absences.
47. Nat King Cole was the first black American to have his own television show. The Nat King Cole Show ran without national sponsors on a network-supported basis, and was eventually done in by a lack of financial support.
48. Contrary to popular belief, Jay Z‘s stage name does not come from the J and Z lines that run by his childhood home in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects. Jay Z had been known as Jazzy, but he adopted his current moniker after Jazzy became too “glittery.”
49. The phone number in Alicia Keys’ “Diary” was her old phone number, which led to a number of headaches for Georgia resident J.D. Turner, who had Keys’ old number (albeit a different area code.)
50. Whitney Houston nearly became a member of the Huxtable clan. She auditioned for the role of Sondra Huxtable, the eldest daughter on The Cosby Show, but lost the role to Sabrina LeBeauf.