Each year, five songs are nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Song of the Year category. It is given for excellence in songwriting, and awarded to the songwriters of those songs. This year, the winner is “That’s What I Like,” written by Bruno Mars, Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Philip Lawrence, Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus & Jonathan Yip.
Having multiple songwriters on a single song was a common thread this year. Because of that, the Best Song nominations for 2017 have the distinction of including more songwriters in total than any previous year. For the five nominated songs, there are 25 songwriters nominated.
Another distinction in this category this year is the presence of a nominated song, “Despacito,” with a non-English title and lyrics. Only once in the history of the Grammys has a song with a foreign title and/or lyrics won Best Song. That was at the first ever Grammys, in 1958, when the winner was “Volare,” written by Franco Migliacci and Domenico Modugno, and recorded by Modugno. It also won Record of the Year that year. The song “Michelle” by Lennon & McCartney, performed (of course) by The Beatles, which has both French and English lyrics, was nominated and won Best Song of the Year in 1967.
The origins of “Despacito,” as well as “That’s What I Like” and the other nominated songs, “4:44,” “Issues” and “1-800-273-8255,” are explored here, based on interviews with the songwriters.
“That’s What I Like”
To capture the old-school dance party vibe he wanted, Bruno brought together two teams of writer-producers, and threw a party. Merging his Smeezingtons (Bruno, Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy and Philip Lawrence) with old friends the Stereotypes (Ray “Charm” McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus and Jonathan Yip), Mars played the track and said it needed more. “Bruno had the outline of the song,” said Yip, “and said ‘I need to get that bounce.’” “He knows exactly what he wants,” said Romulus. “He’s an artist’s artist to the core, and a songwriting genius. He knew the feeling he wanted to bring to the dance-floor, which he felt is missing in the marketplace.”
Rather than use words, as Reeves explained, Bruno let his body explain: “He was dancing the whole time, and would say, `I don’t want to dance like this, I want to dance like this !’ And we shaped the song to that movement.” To get that bounce, they used double-time, so that “you bounce twice to it,” Charm said. “It’s a slow tempo, which we love because you can body-roll to it. We added all those in-between beats, which made it modern. These days the drums lead.”
To get the authentic sound, Yip explained, Bruno got the actual keyboards from the era they loved, the deep-pocket ’90s. “We were transported back,” he said. “He can do it all. Bruno’s no less hands-on than M.J. He’ll be dancing, and then the next second he’s on the keyboard. To me, he is almost the reincarnation of Michael. He made us feel like Quincy.”
The lyrics came from Bruno. “All that about the Cadillacs and champagne,” Romulus said, “that’s how Bruno is. He’s giving you a day in the life. It’s real. Working with him in the studio is always joyful, and that translates to the audience. Even how he sings it; you can hear him smiling.”
“Despacito,” which means ‘slowly’ in Spanish, emerged first thing in the morning as Luis Fonsi recalled: “I remember waking up, and the first thing that came to my mind was the melody and the word ‘despacito.’ I literally ran to the studio and recorded it. I came up with the last verse first, rhyming ‘despacito’ with ‘Puerto Rico’ and ‘Ay bendito.’ Meeting up with frequent collaborator, Erika Ender, he shared his vision of a “sexy, feel-good pop/urban song” with lyrics that were sensual but not overtly sexual. Musically, his goal was to merge Latin styles with an urban /reggaeton beat. “It was like piecing this puzzle together,” he said. With Erika he developed the melody, after which she shaped the words.
“The lyrics,” she said, “have my woman’s touch. I needed to say how women like to be seduced, but in a classy, elegant way. We need to enjoy life, love and romance way more despacito.”
When writing the second verse, Fonsi felt it needed “a moment of explosion, and that’s when we came up with the idea to call Daddy Yankee. He heard it and immediately said yes, went to the studio, wrote his part and did his magic.” To Ender, the song is a confirmation that “music really is a universal language and a beautiful way of uniting people, showing that America is really the land that makes dreams come true and the land that, historically, embraces everyone. We are in a new era.”
“I view songwriting with Jay-Z like scoring a movie,” said his co-writer and producer Dion Wilson, aka No ID. “My job is to see something in him, and then provoke it to come out with music.” Making the music honest was the goal: “That was the theme: what is necessary to live a good life.” Inspired by this direction, he immediately crafted a track. “That inspired me to make the music exactly as you hear it,” he said. “Then I played it for him, looked at him and said, `So, what are you gonna do now?’ [Jay-Z] left the studio immediately, woke up the next day at 4:44 in the morning and started writing the words.”
Realizing Jay-Z liked to leap into a song the first thing in the early morning, Dion ensured there was always music ready for him. “Jay-Z would go to the treadmill in the early morning. I would have music in his email before he got to the treadmill.” Considered by spiritualists as an angelic sign of awakening, the time 4:44 is not only the album’s title track, but also the exact length of the song, which Dion said was a happy accident. “That number has a lot of meaning for Jay-Z,” said Dion. “Both he and Beyonce were born on the 4th, and they have a long history with that number four and 4:44.” As Jay-Z told iHeartRadio, “I just believe it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written.”
“Issues” emerged when a fight with her boyfriend led Julia Michaels to write one key word: “Issues.” Though tears came first, the song soon followed. “Our relationship was a constant projection of insecurities,” she said, “so I knew ‘Issues’ was the most fitting title for this.” To realize the song, she turned first to collaborator Benny Blanco, who laid down a “bare-bones string pad” that set the right vibe.
Then she asked her longtime “songwriting husband,” Justin Tranter, to help write the words and melody.
“[Justin] helps me puzzle-piece my emotions together,” she said. “I said, `I’ve got issues’ and he said, `You’ve got ‘em too,’ and from there I knew exactly how I wanted this song to go. The next thing we knew, the song had been written. It was cathartic. The next day Tor and Mikkel came in and added the plucked strings, and it was done. It’s a song about my personal life. It’s so close only after it was written did I realize how much this song related to others. Because rarely do people openly admit to having issues in songs. I think it speaks to a society constantly trying to be perfect, when all of us are flawed. It says that it is okay to bare it all and people will still accept you, even if you are teetering on unstable. I had no idea this small idea would turn into something bigger than I could have ever imagined and I’m so glad it did.”
Alessia Caraciolo, Sir Robert Bryson Hall II, Arjun Ivatury & Khalid Robinson, songwriters (Logic Featuring Alessia Cara & Khalid)
While on a special fan tour in which he traveled around America to do shows in the homes of certain lucky fans, Logic repeatedly received the same message: That his music saved their lives. “That really struck me,” he said, “because I didn’t try to save anyone’s life, I just tried to make positive music. But can you imagine if I stood up and tried to create a song that was designed to save lives?” It’s that thought which led to writing a song about the suicide hotline.
With producer-pal Arjun Ivatury, he quickly finished the lyrics and the track. But sensing it needed added dimensions, they left open spaces in the track onto which they invited two artists, both close friends and kindred spirits, to contribute.
“I thought of Alessia [Cara] first,” said Logic, “because she has so many uplifting songs. I told her I was rapping from the perspective of a person who wants to take their life and asked if she could play the operator on the lifeline. She said yes, and did an amazing job. I also wanted the voice of the person explaining why they want to be alive and not hurt anymore, so I reached out to Khalid, who honored me by coming and recording that perfect part.”
“It was then I knew the song was done,” he said. “And it became a dream come true. No matter what happens, this song already won. It already did its job. I’m just so happy it could help people. And that’s all that matters.”