Welcome to #TBT Mixtape, Billboard's series that showcases artists' very own throwback-themed playlists exclusive to Billboard's Spotify account. The curated set features the artists' favorite tracks from their youth and childhood.
This week's spin comes from Starrah. The enigmatic songwriter (born Brittany Hazzard) has become one of the most in-demand voices behind the decks, with credits for Madonna, Maroon 5, Camila Cabello, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, Halsey, Drake, Nicki Minaj, DJ Mustard, Kevin Gates, Def Loaf and many more. But it was her 2016 cut for Rihanna’s ANTI LP — “Needed Me” — that helped her rise to the upper echelon of the pop songwriting sphere.
“The way it translated to other people was a good feeling for me,” she told Billboard earlier this year, when she appeared on the cover of The New Hitmakers issue alongside fellow top 40 mainstays like Frank Dukes, Victoria Monet and Louis Bell. “It changed my perspective on my ability to write a universal song.”
As a queer songwriter, Starrah has injected her own identity and journey to self-acceptance in the LGBTQ+ community into her hits, most recently showcased Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You,” which was initially inspired by the queer songwriter’s examination of her own "feelings for a girl.” Part of Starrah’s magic is to pair a simplicity in melody and lyric with a “splash of something unexpected,” she says. “It throws you for a loop every time, and shows you the power of manifestation and the law of attraction, which I am a firm believer in.”
To toast Billboard’s Summer of Pride, Starrah curated this week’s #TBT Mixtape to honor some of early sonic influences that have made her a force in the studio, including tracks by Marvin Gaye, Santigold, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and The-Dream.
The modest talent grew up on the latter iconic R&B songwriter, whose hits like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” both earned Song of the Year wins at the Grammy's. “There is definitely a through line between myself and The-Dream. I studied his music diligently,” she recalls. “I played B2K’s “Everything” back to back for hours on end as a kid. I recently found out that he wrote that song. Listening to him taught me how to switch it up. Be sexy but be witty at the same time. Crack jokes, show that you’re human through your writing.”
Known as a shy-but-mighty force in the studio, Starrah struggles with social anxiety, which has complicated her rise to fame, though also doubles as an asset in her ability to read people. “I’ve always been an observant person, so regardless of social anxiety or introversion I am probably more capable of reading others better than most people,” she says. “It’s more of a method acting process than it is getting into someone’s head. I normally have to decompress between projects, much like an actor would between movies because of this. I enjoy it though. It makes the creation process more exciting for me.”
Initially pigeon-holed as an “urban songwriter” by pop’s elite, Starrah's own rise has dovetailed with top 40 radio’s own embrace of hip-hop in recent years. “It’s a blessing for everyone involved in the creation of hip-hop. Personally my whole life has always included hip hop in some way, so I can’t necessarily say I feel a difference in the climate of my own mind and culture,” Starrah says. “I watched acts like Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj go from underground to mainstream. So for me it wasn’t like I didn’t see it as something that wasn’t possible. The kids are woke. Music is more universal than ever because they want to hear and feel something real and edgy.”
Writing a hit is an elusive thing for Starrah, whose fly-on-the-wall approach remains consistent, whether she's working with rising stars or the "Queen of Pop" Madonna on her latest LP Madame X. “I just listen to who artists are as people. The most I can do is get inside their minds and see what they’re thinking.”