Sean Garrett discusses the “unbelievably irresistible” R&B genre and why Summer Walker’s ‘Still Over It’ is today’s ‘Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.’
At 19, Sean Garrett was already songwriting for Beyoncé. “I really went there to do ‘Is She The Reason,’” he says. But once the Atlanta-born multi-hyphenate arrived to work on the Destiny’s Child deep cut, there was no looking back. A teenage Garrett ended up co-writing five of the 11 tracks on the girl-group’s fifth and to date final studio album, Destiny Fulfilled.
There was “Girl.” And “T-Shirt.” Then “Through With Love,” “Soldier” and “Lose My Breath,” the latter two, both peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Between phrases, Garrett interrupts himself, recalling additional song titles he went on to write for Beyoncé: “Check On It,” “Upgrade U,” “Ring The Alarm,” “Get Me Bodied.”
“I was just working on pure adrenaline,” he says. And while the 42-year-old singer, songwriter and producer may attribute his knack for writing to that stress-triggered hormone, creating back-to-back hits seems to be the Sean Garrett way — Jay-Z nicknamed him “The Pen,” something Garrett has since proudly latched onto (his Instagram handle is “seangarrettthepen”).
But Garrett isn’t here to reminisce. At the time of his interview with Billboard, he’s back in Atlanta, fresh off of a press run in New York City celebrating the success of Summer Walker’s sophomore studio album, Still Over It. “This is probably one of the most amazing projects I’ve ever been a part of, and my first time as executive producer of an album,” he says. “It just feels unbelievable.”
Still Over It was released on Nov. 5 and became Walker’s first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. The 20-track set moved 166,000 equivalent album units in the U.S. in the week ending Nov. 11, according to MRC Data. The set marks the first R&B album by a woman to top the Billboard 200 in more than five years, and the largest streaming week ever for an R&B album by a woman. “We weren’t caught up in what people will say today,” says Garrett of the album’s success. “We were caught up in greatness — that’s what we were aiming for.”
The four-time Grammy nominated musician worked on Still Over It alongside big-name producers like The Neptunes, Nineteen85, Buddah Bless, and the father of Walker’s 9-month-old daughter, London on da Track. London is credited on nine of the album’s 20 tracks. “The credits, that’s just business — it was some business,” Garrett says of London’s involvement, choosing his words carefully. “The actual work — I’ll let y’all figure that out later.”
Still Over It is not Garrett’s first time atop a Billboard chart. The musical savant has seven Hot 100 No. 1s under his belt, beginning with Usher’s “Yeah!” 17 years ago. But despite his numerous accolades, and work with superstars like Britney Spears, Usher, Beyonce, Fergie, Chris Brown and Ciara, Garrett has yet to win a Grammy.
“I’m a competitor and I take my craft really seriously,” he says. “Of course, when you’re on the field, you want your respect. You want your Grammys. You want your acknowledgements. You want your peers to give you what you’ve earned.”
Considering the commercial success of Still Over It, the album may be posed to deliver Garrett’s first such award in 2023. “It’s a lot of work that has been put into all of these projects over the years — and people really don’t see what you really go through, how difficult it is to do it time and time and time again,” he says.
While Garrett’s days may be spent writing hits for other artists, he’s still making time for himself — including a plan to release his own album during the first quarter of 2022, a project he describes as deeply R&B. “It actually lost its steam for a little bit,” he says, “[But R&B] is back and stronger than ever.”
Garrett also partnered with former senior vice president of A&R for Def Jam, Max Gousse, for their label Hey Young World. “It’s important to help the community and some of these amazing artists, and give them a little bit more than what the record labels are giving them,” Garrett says.
Still Over It‘s success marked a pro-R&B shift in the musical market, something Garrett says he’s excited about. “I’m just thankful for Summer, for LVRN, thankful to Interscope and to my team. It’s been a beautiful thing,” he says. “If there was nothing that solidified my legitimacy [before] this album, this is it.” Below, he talks with Billboard about his history in R&B, past and present.
You now have seven Hot 100 No. 1 hits under your belt, talk to us a little bit about your first.
“Yeah!” was my first [No. 1] record. Usher probably was like, “This guy is crazy” — because I was like, “Yo, this song is going to change your life.” And he was like, “Yeah, right.” But I knew in my heart and soul that it was going to change the world. And it did. It’s really an amazing feeling when someone tells you “no,” and then everything that God tells you is going to happen, actually happens in front of the world.
How would you say the world of songwriting has transformed since you entered in 2004?
Part of my plight at that time was to make people respect the art of songwriting. They weren’t even trying to pay songwriters. They were like, “You get paid after everybody else, and once the royalties come in.” That doesn’t make sense to me. I’m like, the song is the song. One of my [goals] was to bring back the idea of respecting the record. That was something really important to me, and something that I really fought for.
It’s so beautiful now to see [the impact of] so many songwriters over time, Esther Dean, the Ne-Yo’s, I mean, Max Martin was my hero. He is absolutely amazing. Someone that I admired and who gave me pointers. I got a chance to go work with him in Sweden early in my career.
Now that we’ve reflected on your start, let’s talk about Still Over It. The album dominated the charts and streaming. What was it like working with Summer Walker?
Our working relationship was amazing. We’re not the same, but we also complement each other. I don’t go in and try to push her too far out of her comfort zone. I fell in love with Summer as a sister. I felt like I needed to help, because she had a lot of things going on. A new baby, never having had a child before. She’s very misunderstood — but she’s also one who can only see life through her lens. So when you’re faced with your reality you just deal with it the best way you can.
All I wanted to do was to give my all to Summer and help her as best as I could. And she went through a lot of dark times along the course of this album. There were so many obstacles, ups and downs, roller coasters. The fact that we’re sitting here and the entire world is going bonkers over this album is just absolutely historic.
What was the thought behind “Ex For a Reason” as the album’s lead single?
You know, everybody was kind of shaken up. They were like, “What is this? This is not Summer.” Summer herself calls that pop music. Anything that isn’t hella soul, she ain’t with it. She was like, “Sean, I love ‘Is She The Reason.’ I want a song like that, I want some soul like that.” There was still a humongous amount of people who didn’t know about Summer Walker. The urban community did. But she wasn’t playing on rhythmic radio and there are way more rhythmic radio stations than there are urban stations.
So our perspective was like, we got to get her up out of here. Over It wasn’t even nominated for a Grammy, which is crazy. But part of that was because you have to stretch out a little bit, expand and grow your audience. “Ex For a Reason,” that’s for every girl in the world. Now, if you listen to the album, you see why it fits. We had to have some sort of dynamics. We had to add some dynamics to the album. That simple change is really good when you listen to an album — even for an artist like Summer.
The album is 20 tracks long — why’d the team go with an album of that length?
We were aiming to give you an album that made you feel the way music used to make you feel. An album that you can really listen to every record and feel like, “Damn, just when I thought this album should be over, there’s another song I really like.” And the dynamics of it — “4th Baby Mama” is nuts. Initially, Summer didn’t like the title at all. If you notice, I’m singing the original copy, because that was the record I was trying to convince her she needed. I was like, “Baby girl, if you don’t take control of this narrative, then they will, and you don’t want that. The reality of it is you are the fourth baby mama.” And guess what we found out? So is Cardi B. So is Ciara. Who are both also on the album.
What would you say is the significance of Still Over It in today’s culture?
Still Over It is like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill meets Mary J. Blidge. At the time that Miseducation was being made, Lauryn was going through a humongous heartbreak with [Rohan] Marley. She was going through a lot of turmoil and a lot of those songs were not just applicable to her life and what she was going through, but were also helping a community of women grow, strengthen and learn a lot. She was giving out a lot of game — and that’s what Still Over It is about. Summer is the one young lady who has the ability to translate to so many different women that are going through so much in our community, in reference to relationships, love and struggle.
Speaking of Miseducation, how would you say the R&B realm has evolved since then?
[Black creatives] are the culture. We’re the ground floor of the the culture, in reference to style, fashion, hip-hop. I’ve seen it evolve in a number of ways, and it actually lost its steam for a little bit. It became a little frustrating for me, because I started to see us not appreciate our music as much as other people. Then they started doing our music, and had to really remind us how amazing our music is. And now we get the idea that R&B music is unbelievably irresistible. We’ve seen it go full circle. Our music is back and stronger than ever. It’s going to be an amazing 2022.
I hear we can now add “label executive” to your resume — tell us more about Hey Young World.
Hey Young World is about signing amazing artists. We want to get back to artist development, so we can help them on a different level of winning so they don’t end up just doing a hit record, making some money and three years later, they don’t know what to do. They find themselves in jail or hurt. That’s a very important piece that a lot of these artists end up missing. When you don’t have it, it’s very difficult for you to survive. It’s almost like putting somebody in the jungle and asking them to figure it out. So, it’s important to help the community and some of these amazing artists and give them a little bit more than what the record labels are giving them.
Do you think the label model is antiquated?
Hey Young World is going to be in connection with [bigger] labels because because there’s still a lot that labels do offer. Having that relationship is really important as well because we’re finding artists who have the ability to translate around the world. That’s the ultimate goal. People say bad things about labels, but we still believe in labels. If you know how to work the labels, build relationships with them and use all the tools that are allotted to you properly, it’ll all function.
You’ve reached insane heights during your 17-year-long career, what is there left to accomplish for Sean Garrett?
I think there’s always something to learn. A lot of my mentors are people that are twice my age, people that are humongous in the game. I look up to Lionel Richie — I call myself “Young Lionel” sometimes. You look at people like L.A. Reid, who signed me first in my publishing deal. Jimmy Iovine, who helped transform how music is bought, received, recorded. Clive Davis. Those guys are hella mature, and they’re still out here making the entire world move. You also got the younger people that are being amazingly dynamic as well. And changing tech and technology affecting us. So you never stop growing. My need to succeed is extremely huge and I just want to grow, continue to be great and to help more.