With today’s R&B lacking love, the man behind Silk Sonic and Lucky Daye is making a difference.
By Austin Williams
Senior Music Editor
Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream
In a way, Dernst “D’Mile” Emile II is the patron saint of Yellow Diamonds. Of the 20 songs I’ve covered in this column over the past two months, he’s produced three: Lucky Daye’s “Cherry Forest” and “Ego,” and Silk Sonic’s Grammy-sweeping single “Leave The Door Open.”
Though he made his name in the mid-aughts securing one-off production credits—a placement on a Mary J. Blige record here, a few songs on a Janet Jackson album there—D’Mile’s greatest successes came once he began producing entire bodies of work. In 2019, he produced every song on Lucky Daye’s debut album, Painted, after both men briefly considered quitting music due to disenchantments throughout their respective careers. The album wound up earning them four Grammy nominations.
The following year, he produced eight of the nine songs on Victoria Monet’s critically acclaimed Jaguar album. And the year after that, he produced two-thirds of Joyce Wrice’s Overgrown before circling back for another full project with Lucky Daye in the form of Candydrip. During those collaborations, the Brooklyn-born beatmaker developed a knack for vibrant production and throwback instrumentation that lent his sound to lyrics about love. Nowhere else in his discography is this more evident than on An Evening With Silk Sonic, which he also produced in its entirety.
“I love the process of how Bruno [Mars] writes,” D’Mile tells me, describing the way the Silk Sonic singer matched his production on the album. “Bruno will always challenge himself and say, ‘Okay, is this the best way I could say it? Or can I do it better?’”
Along with contributions from Anderson .Paak, that musical mastery is what encouraged me to give An Evening With Silk Sonic the No. 1 spot on VIBE’s list of the best R&B albums of 2021. The Grammys also gave the group their flowers.
A work of pastiche perfection honoring ‘70s soul, the album’s romantic lead single (along with a publishing technicality) led to D’Mile becoming the first songwriter to win Song of the Year two years in a row. Before winning the award this year for “Leave The Door Open,” he also won it in 2021 as a credited co-writer of H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe” (though he maintains, “Me and lyrics, I try to stay away from that… I just stick to the music”).
At a grown 37 years old, D’Mile is in the prime of both his life and his career as a curator of music with a message. More often than not, that message is love. As he prepares for follow-up albums with Monet and Wrice, as well as the release of the two tracks he has on Ella Mai’s forthcoming Heart On My Sleeve LP, the decorated producer made time to speak with me about the lost art of love songs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VIBE: Looking at the artists you’ve collaborated with these past few years—Silk Sonic, Lucky Daye, Ella Mai, H.E.R.—something I’ve noticed is you seem to work with singers who are known for creating great love songs. When I think of them, I don’t think of the trend of “toxic” R&B. Would you say that’s what you gravitate towards most in collaborators?
D’Mile: I think it kind of just happened that way, because… You’re right. I never really thought about the things that I gravitate to, but yeah, I guess I would say so. Paying attention to exactly what they’re writing about, it’s kind of a pattern that those are the people that I’m working with. I don’t know if part of it is the energy in the room when I’m there or whatever but…
I think that has to be part of it. The throughline with your work is it sounds very organic. I feel like maybe when these songwriters get in and hear the musicality that you bring, they’re like, “Nah, I can’t bring no toxicity to this. I have to talk about a certain type of thing over this music.”
Yeah, I think you’re right. But then sometimes… Especially when I started working with Ty Dolla [$ign in 2012], I think he was the king of toxic (laughs). He brought it to a whole new level. The stuff I was doing with him back then, what I loved about it was just how raw and real it was. The sh*t that he used to say back in the day was so funny, man. And I thought it was a good contrast.
So, I think there’s a balance for everything. I will agree with you that maybe we need a lot more love these days. But as long as the artists I’m working with get to express how they’re feeling, and I’m able to help them get there, that’s what matters to me. It just so happens that more so than others, people like to write love [songs] to my stuff.
Two love songs from Lucky Daye’s album that I’ve covered in Yellow Diamonds are “Cherry Forest” and “Ego.” I love how versatile his pen is. Those are two very different songs. “Ego” is partially about self-love and “Cherry Forest” is this abstract conception of love. What’s it like watching him create songs like those to your production?
It’s everything. I think once he gets into that mode, and you just watch him do it… It feels easy because it’s like he always just does the right things.
Usually, he’ll either write it in his head or he’ll write it down on paper and I’m not really hearing what he’s doing until he’s ready to go in the booth. And when I hear it, I’m like, “Man, this guy literally nailed what this should be.” He’s just so good at understanding and hearing and listening to what the music is telling him to say.
Would you say the Lucky Dayes of the world are more common today? It feels like a lot of singers right now are doing their own writing, but I’m not sure if that was the case when you were coming up.
That’s so funny you say that because I just had this conversation with some of my friends and my wife. If you think about it back in the day… There were a lot of big artists that really didn’t write as much. Now, it seems like everybody’s doing it. [Or] the writers are becoming artists themselves. I don’t know how you want to look at it. But they’re having a lot more input now it seems than they did in the early 2000s.
[As a producer], it makes it easier to figure out. If [the artist] knows what they want to do and if they’re good at doing it, you don’t really need to outsource [to songwriters] as much.
A trend over the past few years of your career has been you producing most, if not all, of the albums that you work on. Would you say that’s mainly where your focus is? Locking in on a whole project as opposed to settling for placements?
I guess so. I mean, I’ll always take placements here and there, but I like being more involved. The more involved I am, I guess the happier I am. I just like being part of the process in any way of just helping with a whole project as opposed to just doing one song and then not knowing how that’s even going to translate with the rest of the album. Because the rest of the album can either make your song sound better or worse (laughs).
In producing these full bodies of work, which one was the most difficult?
Silk Sonic, by far. We spent a whole year, or a year and a half, trying to get “Leave The Door Open” right. And then between the three of us, we’re all producers. So, we all have these ideas and inputs, and sometimes we might disagree. Writing-wise, too. Sometimes one person might feel like, “Yeah, we did it.” And then the other person is like, “No, it’s not it yet.” It was the toughest because it was a lot of that going on, but it’s because we all cared about it.
You gotta think, I’ve been listening to these songs for at least a year, each song… Everything was literally like, “We’re still on this?” But it always gets better and better. And it was worth it. It was extremely worth it.
Pusha T said something similar recently about his new album, in that working with Pharrell was more difficult than working with Kanye, but the result was always worth it. Would you agree that in the creative process sometimes there needs to be a little bit of discord?
I would definitely agree. I guess you could look at it like if there wasn’t any of that, then maybe you should worry. Even though it could be annoying and it’s tough to deal with… I think it’s important.
I was actually rewatching the Janet Jackson documentary last night. And there was a scene where [she’s arguing with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis]. Even they went through that. [But] you saw what happened once they figured it out. They had their disagreements. They had their fights in the studio. They had all of that stuff. And I bet you if that didn’t happen, maybe that album would not have been as good as it was… I think some of the greatest stuff [comes from] when you have to fight to get to that finish line.
Circling back to the Yellow Diamonds stuff, what are some of your favorite love songs of all time?
Donny Hathaway, “A Song For You.” Anything by Boyz II Men. The list can go on. You put me on the spot (laughs).
You mentioning Boyz II Men makes me think of that ‘90s era of R&B, when “begging music” was a thing. I was surprised to see a begging song on the Silk Sonic tracklist (“Put On A Smile”). What do you think of those types of love songs?
We need a lot more of that kind of thing. The thing is, I think everybody’s so cocky these days, man. It’s like they’re ready to say “eff you” first before “sorry.” Or they don’t really like talking about hurt the same way.
[“Put On A Smile”] was cool because it was a new way to say it. We just got to figure out a way to still be vulnerable and not feel like you got to be as hard. [Even] if y’all don’t want to do it like how it was done in the past, there’s still room for that. Because we’re all human. We have the same feelings that our moms and dads had. Nothing really changes. It’s just how we go about it or how we say it that changes.
With those changes, especially now that artists are more involved in the writing of their records, I’m hoping more of them start putting their personal experiences back into the music—because everybody can’t be toxic. I know some of these singers are romantics and want to write about their love. I recently asked Rotimi how he came up with the song “Love Somebody,” and he told me it was inspired entirely by his fiancée.
I had a feeling that was his answer. It had to be. But you can ask the question, are a lot of these other people in love right now? Maybe they are saying what they feel. Think about Summer Walker. She’s been through a lot. I know she’s speaking the truth in her music.
That’s the thing. I think maybe even down to just personally in life, these artists need more love and they’re not really getting it. And they can only talk about what they are getting.
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