Did Beyonce Really Sample Robin S “Show Me Love” on New Song “Break My Soul”?
Last week, Beyonce released her new single, “Break My Soul,” a dance-inflected track that harkens back to the early 90s, complete with a propulsive “four on the floor” rhythm and house piano accompaniment.
“Now, I just fell in love, and I just quit my job,” she sings in the opening verse. “I’m gonna find new drive, damn, they work me so damn hard…”
An obvious hot take was that it’s a commentary on our current moment — people are overworked, underpaid and need the release that music (when it is good) can provide.
I assume most people were content to let the song be what it is, an apt anthem for our times, perfect for partying to or cleaning your apartment.
But no sooner was the song released than a requisite narrative began forming around it; namely, that it owed a debt of gratitude, that it in fact “sampled” a classic tune by singer Robin S that might as well be the national anthem at this point — “Show Me Love.”
“Thank you so much for giving me my flowers while I’m still alive,” Robin S told ITV’s Good Morning Britain the day after the song’s release. “I am honored, and I’m excited to see what else can happen.”
The only issue was that the connection between the two songs was not that cut and dry.
Aside from the organ sound that plays throughout “Break My Soul” (a stock preset “Organ 2” from the Korg M1 synthesizer used on literally hundreds of songs, and widely available on nearly every commercially available piece of music-making software today), when I heard “Break My Soul,” I thought it sounded like a 90s dance song, but I didn’t think it sounded like that 90s dance song.
Was there creative inspiration? Perhaps. But certainly not enough to suggest it sampled “Show Me Love.” You could probably argue it owed as much gratitude to Crystal Waters “Gypsy Woman,” or the numerous renditions of “Please Don’t Go.”
To be fair, sampling is a real thing. It is a technology that exists inside of music software, or hardware equipment used to make music, where a piece of a larger music composition is literally taken (sampled, so to speak), and reused in a new piece of music.
Now, it may sound like splitting hairs, but when it comes to the particulars of songwriting, production and such, sampling makes a big difference. When you sample, you have to pay the owner of the song (say, the record label on which the song came out) to license the original material that you are using, sometimes giving up a portion of your own songwriting/producing credit to whoever wrote/produced the piece being sampled.
In the early 90s, when sampling was growing in popularity, and producers like The Bomb Squad (among other beatmakers) were using, literally, hundreds of samples to make one new song, major lawsuits were fought over its legalities. For example, in 1991, a landmark case was Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., in which rapper Biz Markie (R.I.P.) was found to have infringed on the copyright of singer/songwrtier Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” by using a portion of it on his album I Need A Haircut.
The ruling made it so that the aforementioned licenses had to be acquired in order to sample pre-existing material; afterward, interpolations — where the music of the samples in question were instead replayed, as opposed to directly sampled — became more commonplace, to avoid having to pay whoever owned the underlying material. If this sounds somewhat complicated, that’s because it is. And it’s probably not a coincidence that sampling fell out of favor as time went by.
But in recent years, the issues at heart with sampling — namely, incorporating someone else’s creation into a new creation — have crept up again, this time having less to do with outright reworking of old music into new music, but rather, whether or not being inspired by something that already exists is grounds for owing them credit.
Much of this can be traced back to 2015. That was when a judge ruled against Robin Thicke and Pharrell in their lawsuit with the Marvin Gaye family over Thicke’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.” The ruling said that “Blurred Lines” sounded similar enough to Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” that it amounted to copyright infringement, and awarded the Gaye estate $5.3 million in damages, plus 50% of the songwriting credit moving forward.
Another egregious overreach was the case, also in 2015, of Tom Petty (R.I.P.) receiving a portion of the songwriting credit for Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” because the main melody appeared to sound vaguely similar to the rocker’s 1989 hit “Won’t Back Down.” Smith, likely wanting to avoid a lawsuit, came to an agreement with Petty, an arrangement that became commonplace behind the scenes in the years since then, with artists being given credit to things they had nothing to do with merely to avoid expensive litigation.
To my ears (and eyes, for that matter), it would appear that a similar thing was now happening with Beyonce, despite the fact that the melodic and harmonic elements of the two songs had even less in common than that of Petty and Smith (which, at the very least, shared a chord progression, and had a melodic similarity, even if said progression and melody were among the most common and overused in the history of Western music).
To wit, New York Times recently reported the credits for “Break My Soul” are continually evolving. The original songwriters of “Show Me Love,” Allen George and Fred McFarlane, were initially credited on the Beyonce song, then uncredited, then credited again. Perhaps the narrative around the song was contributing to the narrative behind the scenes.
The great irony here is that Robin S, who received no songwriting credit on the original track despite literally singing the song, appears to have received nothing from the supposed sampling; nor is Swedish DJ/producer StoneBridge, whose remix is the version most people are familiar with.
Even he acknowledges that the connections between “Break My Soul” and “Show Me Love” may be a reach. “To my ears they used the organ bass sound and did a similar thing,” he told the New York Times. “It’s not like a sample.”
And yet, if there is poetic justice to this whole affair, it may be that it made at least one listener — I’m referring to myself, to be clear — go back and check out the original version of “Show Me Love,” the one that came before the remix, the one that nobody remembers. It is much different, more lush and expertly-arranged, pulling more from 80s R&B than 90s dance, and seemingly just as timeless (owing to how great the song itself actually is).
Now, there is no debate at all that the original version and Beyonce’s new song sound nothing alike. When listening to it, there is no quandary about whether one artist owes a debt of gratitude to another, whether money changed hands, whether it is right or wrong that this one or that got paid off of the biggest artist in the world making a song that sounds somewhat like a remix from thirty years ago. There is just the pure joy of good music, and that’s the way things are supposed to be.