When Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled album touched down last month, a minor mystery quickly shot out from the forest of the album’s liner notes. Among the usual suspects—Timbaland, the-Dream, Pharrell, Hit-Boy—someone by the name “Boots” was everywhere on the record. He wrote and produced “Haunted”, “Heaven”, and, perhaps most strikingly, “Blue”, the song dedicated to Beyoncé and Jay Z’s daughter. He sang backup vocals on and performed many or all of the instruments on several songs. In an interview, Beyoncé name-checked him as “an innovator,” while a member of her creative team tweeted the only currently available picture of Boots, with the note that he had “co-produced 80 percent of the album.” Within seven days, the query “Who is Boots?” had racked up 452,000,000 Google results.
So who is Boots? When I meet him at a Brooklyn restaurant down the street from his apartment, I have already agreed to some ground rules: I can’t ask about his real name—even though Complex, The Broward Palm Beach New Times, and now even his freshly-minted Wikipedia page identify him as Jordy Asher, a Miami-based musician who spent time in a number of rock bands, including Blonds. He doesn’t want to talk about any of the projects he’s worked on before now. And he’s cagey about how, exactly, Beyoncé discovered his demo, saying only, “That’s for Beyoncé and me to know.”
But Boots isn’t trying to be coy, just practical: Turns out that having the celebrity-hunting industrial complex descend upon you en masse can be terrifying. “When the album came out, people were calling my parents’ house within days,” he tells me. “A dude was trying to sell pictures of me—just crazy shit that I’m not trying to bring into my life. It got rabid for a second. I know the information is going to get out there at some point; I’m not stupid. But I don’t know that I want to be the one to just hand it over to everyone. It can become a weird world real quick.”
Later in the evening, after several cabs and bars, the conversation loosens, as it tends to. At one point, he pulls out his phone in the backseat of a car, starts up “Partition”, and sings along to every word. He tells me he what a “beautiful person” Frank Ocean is. In fact, one of the night’s takeaways is that for someone who arrived with so much seeming mystery surrounding him, Boots is endearingly bad at anonymity. He tells me his real first name readily (adding that it’s off the record). And if you go to RapGenius, you will find Boots-verified explanations of his own lyrics. He also seems to lack the true introvert’s distaste for being spotted: When an overgrown labrador of a bartender leans over and asks him eagerly, “Hey, is your name Boots? I’m a songwriter/producer too,” Boots rolls his eyes at me when we walk away, but his glowing face and big grin tell another story.
As for his life pre-Beyoncé, he obligingly sketches out some details. He grew up in what he calls a “lower-middle class-type situation” in Miami. As a musician, he is completely self-taught, starting with making his own beats. His nickname came from the footwear he preferred as a young breakdancer. (“I couldn’t glide in Nikes.”) He spent years estranged from his parents and dropped out of high school at 18 in a fit of pique without getting a GED. “My parents instilled really good values in me, but the value was never ‘Go get yourself a really good job,’” he says, laughing.
“It was no one’s fault but my own, but my life instantly got super-miserable,” he remembers. “For four years I was virtually homeless and one year I was really, really homeless. I lived in a van. In Miami, it’s really hard to stay asleep in a car for more than four hours before it gets wretchedly hot, so I would try to catch a few more hours in the bathroom of Walmart before someone banged on the door. I was too prideful to let anybody know what was really going on. I joined a gym; that was my rent money, and it’s where I would shower.” Of this experience, he says simply: “I learned real young that you can fuck your own life up, and I did, for a while.”
The road from this moment to signing a publishing deal with Roc Nation last June is a murky one, but I don’t push the issue, mostly because I am far more interested where he is now: At the center of the richest and best record Beyoncé has ever made. Boots is the secret ingredient of Beyoncé: In many ways, he embodies the album’s distinctive sound—hooded and contemplative, lined with rhythmic trap doors, lonely hallways of space yawning open in the arrangements. It is moody and twilit even when it’s exultant or carnal.
“‘Haunted’ was the first thing she ever heard from me, and she heard it in a very innocent and pure way, without any label heads or any of that,” he says. “It was originally called ‘I’m Onto You’, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t get it at all at first. I was like, ‘What is she hearing in this?’ because it was just me sounding sad as fuck, singing by myself. I recorded the piano with my iPhone as a voice memo—and that shit made it onto the damn album, by the way. It was a loose idea, but the feeling was there. I had written a bunch of songs that could have been ‘Beyoncé songs,’ whatever that had meant before now, but she wasn’t interested in those. There was something about what I had to say that resonated with her.”
He singles out playing Beyoncé the stream-of-consciousness rap on “Ghost” as another early communion moment between the two of them. “When she heard that, her eyes widened, and she was immediately like, ‘That’s exactly what I feel like,’” he says. “She just started talking about her experiences in the record industry, people telling her what they think her sound should be. She got signed to a crazy contract when she was young.”
Boots recalls writing the song after coming home livid from an infuriating meeting with a potential label: “The things people say in those meetings would take your breath away. After a while, I didn’t even feel like I was talking to people anymore, I was just talking to chairs. So I went home, it was five in the morning, and I just started typing shit out—everything I hear on the radio isn’t inspiring; I’m not inspired by anything I’m doing; these people have no idea what’s happening. It was just a stream-of-consciousness. I woke up the next day and realized I needed to do something with that. That’s what eventually became that rap.”
As far as the music on “Ghost”, he says he “made the beat from a dreamlike, hypnotic place, because that’s where it began for me. I started with guitars, just building the layers until they resembled Aphex Twin soundscapes. And then I completely contained them within the beat. [Aphex Twin’s] works like that are more floaty, more without than within, but I made mine grounded in that thumping beat, so you can’t get out of that feeling.”
He cites Aphex Twin as an early discovery that shaped his sensibilities. “His soundscapes and drum patterns always blew my mind,” he says. “If he wasn’t over-the-top technical with his drum patterns, he was really sparse and beautiful. It was like there was no middle ground. It was very either/or. That to me was so amazing. It took me a long time to figure out the ‘sparse and beautiful’ side of that equation. I was trying so desperately to achieve that feeling, but everything I did as a kid was really chaotic. It’s easier to be chaotic.”
He ended up working on nearly every song on the album. “Jealous” was “just some drums and that synth” when he got to it. He added the high melody—”if you’re keeping your promise I’m keeping mine”—because “it seemed like a shame something more melodic didn’t happen in the song.” He is also responsible for many of the album’s intimate, diaristic details: on “Blue”, he inserted a recording of the birds chirping outside the studio into the mix. (You can hear them, faintly, in the last 30 seconds of the track.) “It was such a special day,” he remembers. “Blue was talking so much—from the moment that I met that kid until then, the amount she said tripled. People were watching her making connections; she started telling everyone that the two dinosaurs she was running around with were mommy and baby dinosaur. The birds were like a stamp for the song; I wanted to remember that day.”
Nonetheless, Boots makes abundantly clear that the only real visionary in the room was Beyoncé, who saw potential in scraps that bewildered him. He admits he thought “XO” was “average” at first, until producer Hit-Boy added his drums. “I loved ‘XO’ melodically; it’s so beautiful. But Hit-Boy brought something different to it. I remember hearing the finished song from the next studio over from where I was working. The chords sounded familiar, and finally I said, ‘Is that … ‘XO’?! Because that doesn’t feel like ‘XO’.” And when the creative team was casting about for inspiration for the “Jealous” video, Beyoncé sent along the clip for L.A. garage rocker Hanni El Khatib’s “Roach Cock”. “She said, ‘I’m inspired by how this feels—can you bring a little bit of that to ‘Jealous’?” I was more than happy. So there’s this gnarly fuzz guitar ripping in the background. It was awesome to get a video like that from her.”
And she wouldn’t leave “Haunted” alone. “She just kept saying, ‘It doesn’t feel like how I want it to feel like yet,” he remembers. Her directive? “This shit has to knock harder than any rap album out there.” More than anything else Boots worked on, “Haunted”—the second track on Beyoncé—seems like a key to the album’s mood. “It’s like that song is leading you by the hand, but you’re blindfolded and you don’t know where you’re going,” he says. “You’re scared and you’re not sure what to expect from it, but as the album unfolds, we take the blindfold off and you realize it’s a surprise party for you.”
Later on, he plays me something of his own that affirms just how distinctive his stamp on Beyoncé was. We are in a basement studio in the East Village, and the crowd is small and intimate. I ask to hear one particularly haunting track a second time; it’s chorus, which goes, “When I’m with you/ Who am I/ When I’m with you/ All through the night,” closely resembles the “What goes up/ Ghosts around” section of “Haunted”. Paired with a quaking low end and an off-kilter knock that brings to mind James Blake, it is soulful and chilly, intricate and fluid. Each fine-grained sound is separated by miles of distance. When it’s over, Boots grins into the silence. Then, he cues up “Partition” again, and starts dancing wildly around the room.