Kandi Burruss reflects on hits she made with Xscape, Destiny's Child, Pink, NSYNC, and more
The Write Stuff is a series about the stories behind hit songs.
Kandi Burruss has had so many different careers that new fans may be unaware that she co-wrote two timeless No. 1 hits in TLC's "No Scrubs" and Destiny's Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills" — and that they competed against each other at the 2000 Grammys ("No Scrubs" came away with the win for Best R&B Song).
"When I tell you that was the most amazing feeling in the freaking world..." Burruss, 44, tells EW about the feat.
While Burruss' professional songwriting career began with co-writing songs for her group Xscape in the 1990s, it didn't fully blossom until the dramatic dissolution of the R&B quartet.
"I don't want to harp on the negative, but let's just say we were in a negative space, a lot of cattiness, a lot of arguing, even physical fights," she says.
"I went from feeling very secure in my finances to feeling very not secure," adds Burruss of that pivotal moment in her career. "The push of going hard and writing these songs really came out of necessity to survive because of my group falling apart, not knowing what the future held. But having that success, having the two Grammys, becoming Songwriter of the Year, and all these other things, it really showed me that sometimes things happen in your life to force you to go and take the step that you were supposed to take anyway."
Becoming a songwriter was freeing for Burruss, with the early success releasing her from any ill will she felt toward Xscape.
"It was really that thing to show me, 'You can stand alone. You can stand by yourself, and you will be okay,'" she says.
"Feels So Good" — Xscape (1995)
"To me, our time in Xscape was a time of learning," says Burruss of her days in the R&B quartet, who were discovered by producer Jermaine Dupri. "We didn't get big percentages on those songs because it wasn't like we were the ones initiating those records," she says. "Jermaine was the main writer, and he would allow us to write a little bit here, a little bit there. I would sit and watch him write sometimes and pick apart what he was doing, and how he would come up with these ideas. I feel like I was a sponge around him."
With regards to co-writing what would become the lead single for the group's platinum-selling sophomore album Off the Hook, "I was just excited that he finally broke down and said, 'Okay, guys, yeah, you can help write on this.' Because literally I remember always being like, 'Come on, man, let me write something.' I knew that I could write, but I just needed him to give me a shot. So I was glad he finally started opening up a little bit, and it was good to see that song did become a single and it did do well."
"No Scrubs" — TLC (1999)
Burruss' career writing for other artists began when her time in Xscape ended. "Because the group was falling apart [before their third album], I was in panic mode, meaning I didn't know what was going to happen with my career at the time. I was scared. I was just like, 'Okay, if Xscape breaks up and we don't have another album coming, how am I going to take care of myself? How am I going to provide for myself?' I didn't have another way to make money."
Her and fellow Xscape member Tameka "Tiny" Cottle made a demo tape featuring "No Scrubs," which they'd penned and performed together. "She'kspere, who was the producer of the song, played it for some people, and somebody got a copy of it and then played it for L.A. Reid, and he wanted it for TLC," says Burruss. "I was like, 'Cool. Let them have it, because I always wanted to write for other artists, I just didn't know how to do it. There's always that low-key rivalry thing that would go around in the industry. It was like, 'How are you going to get somebody else to let you write for them, and you're in a whole other girl group?'"
While she was happy to just be considered, Burruss had reason to believe the song might get cut from FanMail. "They were going back and forth on what they wanted to do with the song because that's the first song that Chili sang lead on. So that's why I wasn't really sure if that song was going to be a first single, or even a single at all. Normally, T-Boz was the lead, so I didn't know if they were going to keep it."
But Burruss would soon receive positive news about the track. "I remember running into L.A. Reid at this party and he was like, 'I'm going to make this song the biggest record of your career,' and I'm looking at him like, 'Okay.' But in my mind I was thinking, 'Well Xscape, we've had some big records... Whatever you say.' But he wasn't lying. He was serious, and he really did."
"Bug a Boo" — Destiny's Child (1999)
Based off the connection they had working on "No Scrubs," She'kspere (born Kevin Briggs) invited Burruss to Houston to write for The Writing's on the Wall. "I knew it would be kind of awkward because Destiny's Child was on the same label that I was on," she says. "I remember when we first got there [manager] Matthew Knowles was like, 'Well, we already kind of know who the producers and writers we want to work with for this project [are], so we really don't have any more spaces for this album, but we'll see what you can come up with.'"
Burruss went in with a game plan. "What I try to do when I know that I'm going to collaborate with people is I'll try to already have a concept together. I already have a melody or a sketch of a hook so it makes it easy; a shell of an idea is already there, you just gotta fill it in."
At one point, She'kspere had left the room and the beat for "Bug a Boo" came on. Burruss saw how the girls were decidedly not into the fast and layered production. "They were like, 'Yeah, we don't really hear anything. We need to just let him know that we're not feeling it.' I remember saying to them, 'I got an idea, do you mind me singing what I'm thinking, and then you can see what you think?' They were like, 'Okay.' I remember I sang them the melody of the verse I wrote. I was like, 'It's not hot that you be buggin' me…' I was singing that first part to them and then the whole concept of the bug a boo, the 'Throw my pager out the window,' and they were like, 'Oh, okay. We like that.'"
After some tweaks to the hook, Burruss was invited to work on more songs with the group.
"Bills, Bills, Bills" — Destiny's Child (1999)
"We went from Matthew saying he didn't know if we were going to make any songs, to having five songs on the album," says Burruss of her time working on The Writing's on the Wall. The idea for "Bills, Bills, Bills" began on a trip to the store with She'kspere while they were still in Texas. "He started beatboxing it to me," she says. "He actually started thinking of the hook and singing, 'Can you pay my bills? Can you pay my automo' bills?' I was like, 'I like that.'" Her main note, though: "We don't want them to seem like they're just gold digger-type of girls, so why don't we put the story behind it in the verse?"
Recording it with the group, Burruss could tell Beyoncé "was definitely a leader as far as vocal production was concerned." Even then, the future icon displayed a knack for determining how the songs should be sung. Notes Burruss, "A lot of times, when we were going to the studio with people, I'm the one telling them what they need to sing, what harmony they need to do, what part they need to stack, but I didn't have to do that with her. She was in there coming up with parts, coming up with harmonies, telling her other group members what she heard them doing, and what she wanted them to do."
"X-Girlfriend" — Mariah Carey (1999)
Mariah Carey recorded most of her Rainbow album, including this fervent dismissal track, in Capri, Italy. "But she wanted to work with She'kspere and I, so she decided that we would work via the telephone," Burruss recalls. "She'kspere sent her [tracks], she picked the one she wanted, and I would come up with an idea and sing her the melody I was thinking and the concept, and she was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I like that.' Then she was like, 'No, I would never say this. Let's change that, let's do this.'"
They would then each go back to their respective sessions, with Carey working on the rest of the album, while Burruss wrote for singer Mýa. "It took about two to three phone calls, going back and forth, changing things up," says Burruss, adding that Carey is "definitely a songwriter because she knows exactly what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. It's like she wanted my vibe because her thing was, 'I'm calling you guys because I want what Kandi and She'kspere do,' but she still wanted to put Mariah's thing to it."
"There You Go" — Pink (2000)
Burruss remembers meeting Pink when she was still part of the R&B group Choice — and before the singer crossed over to the pop-rock sound she's now known for.
"I was like, 'Oh, okay, a white girl that can sing like a Black girl,' but that was part of her appeal when she was first signed to LaFace," says Burruss. "I take pride in the fact that, obviously, we gave her her first hit. You can't take that away, it's as simple as that. She got in the door with that song."
Burruss takes no issue with the more rock-forward approach that soon became Pink's signature. "I love the direction that she changed into. I love her new sound. I love what she did with Linda Perry. I love it honestly, and I'm happy for her… People grow and change, and there's nothing wrong with that."
"It Makes Me Ill" — NSYNC (2000)
"I think I was one of the first top R&B writers that used to use the rap melodies for the verses," says Burruss. "I remember even Justin Timberlake, back when I worked with NSYNC, was like, 'You need to make a name for that. It's like rapping, but melody, maybe you should call it mapping.' I was like, 'No. No, we won't be doing that.'"
While she was disappointed this No Strings Attached song didn't end up as a single, "the thing that I love was the opportunity to work with a group of guys at the time, because I was catching so much flak. People were saying I was writing male-bashing songs so I was just like, 'Finally, I get to write for some guys.' For some reason, people thought I only wanted to write for women, and that wasn't the case. I was like, 'It's just that these are the songs that are blowing up, and I can't help it. Give me some guys to write for!'"
"Don't Think I'm Not" — Kandi (2000)
Burruss' best-known solo single is another one with a complicated story, stemming from the initial end of Xscape. Her plan to be a duo with Tiny didn't pan out because "[the label] refused to allow us to go somewhere else to get a deal because they felt like she had the most recognizable face of the group, and I had the most recognizable voice of the group. They felt like that would have been giving away Xscape to another label."
Instead, LaFace gave her a solo deal just as she started writing songs for other artists. "We were just trying to figure the project out, and then 'Don't Think I'm Not' was one of the songs that we had done, and I really, really, really love that song."
But Burruss did not expect to see the song take on the life it eventually would. "The funny thing is I feel like 'Don't Think I'm Not' is a cult favorite," she says. "It didn't get to be as big as I wanted it to be, but it's one of those songs that everybody knows. It was really big in Europe, like top 10. Whenever I perform it, everybody says, 'Oh, that's my song!' And I'm like, 'But it wasn't big enough for me back then.'"
"U and Dat" — E-40 feat. T-Pain and Kandi Girl (2006)
"A lot of people don't know it was me," cracks Burruss as she talks about her cheeky rap alter ego that appeared on this 2006 song with E-40 and T-Pain. "I guess it was this phase that I was going through where people always constantly reinvent themselves," she says. "I was working with Lil Jon, and I wanted to have an alter ego or something that I could drop verses on these people's songs and say crazy s--- and it not matter. Kandi Girl can speak very vulgar at times, and say some very outlandish stuff, and do some outlandish things, so that was fun for me. I hadn't been doing anything for a minute so it was new and different. It was dope. And when it ended up being a smash, I wasn't even expecting it."
"Tardy for the Party" — Kim Zolciak (2009)
Burruss joined Bravo's Real Housewives of Atlanta in its second season, where she would go toe-to-toe with formidable castmates like NeNe Leakes, and brought a "root for the underdog" mentality. "That year when I first got there, I remember they kept telling Kim [Zolciak] she was terrible and she never was going to be able to do anything," recalls Burruss. Having already clicked with the amateur vocalist, though, she thought "as a writer-producer I have worked with all types of artists, some a little challenged in the booth, so my thoughts were there is nobody that I can't make a hit for. Now whether I'm right or not, it's up for debate, but when I saw her feeling defeated because everybody was saying these things, I just was like, 'You know what? I'm going to help her.'"
The result was a phenomenon that led to an ongoing trend of other Real Housewives releasing their own vanity singles. "If anybody ever questioned what I do in the studio, or what my capabilities are, you were able to see it with your own eyes," says Burruss. "It's the magic of somebody who has a vision, who has writing talent and vocal production talent. You gotta have an ear, and you have to know how to edit, and you have to know lyrically [how] to put together a song."
"Shape of You" — Ed Sheeran (2017)
Initially, it seemed that Ed Sheeran's monster hit had mistakenly interpolated "No Scrubs." But Burruss reveals "it wasn't quite that way."
"They had already reached out to us originally," she says. "I guess he was inspired by our song, and they wanted to work out the publishing. They started the conversation, but then we didn't hear anything else so we assumed that they were no longer using the song. It was like, 'Okay, cool. No big deal, they must not be using it.'
"Then we see the fans talking about the song online and it's like, 'Okay, well, we need to finish the conversation.' That's all there is." She clarifies, "No disrespect to him, because I totally appreciate him reaching out to us."
"Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored" — Ariana Grande (2019)
Burruss cleared the "It Makes Me Ill" sample right before leaving for Celebrity Big Brother season 2, not thinking too much of it. "When they told me that somebody wanted to use a part of that song, I honestly was surprised... because normally I get so many requests for people sampling 'No Scrubs.' That was the first time anybody even inquired about that song, so I'm just like, 'Well, that's cool.' Then when it was Ariana Grande, I was like, 'Wow, that's great!'"
Due to her role on Big Brother, she was unable to listen to TV or go on the internet, and therefore had no clue that the song had hit the charts. Only later did she realize that the person using the sample was her millennium pop peer, legendary producer Max Martin. "I honestly wish I could have actually worked with him and just [written] some new stuff."