Holy Hell! The Writing’s on the Wall Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Writing’s on the Wall Turns 20

It’s impossible not to read the album as a Beyoncé urtext.

In 1999, when Destiny’s Child dropped The Writing’s on the Wall, it wasn’t immediately clear that the album would be a major success. Destiny’s Child was competing with other girl groups, like 702 and TLC, for coveted spots on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop album charts. And when year-end album numbers came rolling in, Destiny’s Child found themselves in 88th place, well behind other female pop and R&B acts like Monica (The Boy Is Mine), Jennifer Lopez (On the 6) and Brandy (Never Say Never).

It was TLC’s FanMail, the 10th highest grossing album of 1999, that cast an especially long shadow over The Writing’s on the Wall. TLC had discovered and capitalized on a crossover-ready sound that combined pristine pop melodies with bad-girl, street-ready attitude. Lead single “No Scrubs,” produced by Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs and co-written by Briggs and former Xscape member Kandi Burruss, stayed in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for 17 weeks straight.

Following in TLC’s footsteps, Destiny’s Child chose another Burruss-She’kspere production, “Bills, Bills, Bills,” as the lead single for The Writing’s on the Wall. Their following single, “Bug a Boo”? Another Burruss-She’kspere joint. This was clearly an album unafraid to capitalize on an existing trend. Lyrically, this meant songs about lazy, broke, uninteresting men who needed to be told off. (Boy, bye!) It also meant referencing slightly goofy yet memorable slang terms like “automo-bills” and, well, “bug a boo” that today would likely result in something like the #PayMyBills challenge. Musically, this involved a textured, often minimal opening (acoustic guitar for “No Scrubs,” harpsichord for “Bills, Bills, Bills,” a Toto riff for “Bug a Boo”) that eventually layers into in a kind of velvety, orchestral backcloth meant to keep the vocals front and center.

As “No Scrubs” already confirms, neither these first two singles from The Writing’s on the Wall nor the next two—“Say My Name” and “Jumpin, Jumpin,” which work similarly—represents a unique sound. Nearly identical tracks, like 702’s “Where My Girls At” and Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love,” both came out earlier in 1999, and the producers/writers of those tracks were also hired on to write and produce for Destiny’s Child. But unlike most pop/R&B albums from the late ‘90s, Destiny’s Child’s album—their second, after a self-titled 1998 debut—went for straight bangers with the singles. All four were up-tempo, dance-ready jams.

This is especially remarkable when you consider that about half of the 16 tracks from The Writing’s on the Wall are slow songs, some of which would have fit nicely with other quiet storm singles buzzing around on hip-hop and R&B radio at that time (think Maxwell’s “Fortunate” or Eric Benét and Tamia’s “Spend My Life With You”). One slow jam standout, also produced by She’kspere, is “She Can’t Love You,” which uses melodramatic flamenco guitar as the scaffolding from which the group throws lyrical shade at an ex’s new gf. The bridge here is especially fun and highlights the usefulness of a group dynamic to Destiny’s Child’s sound. “There’s no way, there’s no way/ That her love could be, could be as good as mine,” the group sings, while Beyoncé ad-libs a kind of disgusted groan. You can almost hear the singer trying to look away as the other members of the group urge her to remember that she is—or should be!—better than this. (What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?)

In other words, while The Writing’s on the Wall wasn’t a groundbreaking LP, it featured a reliably catchy group of songs sent out into the world by a stellar marketing team. So it’s especially surprising that that team decided it was a good idea to open the album with a goofy, The Godfather-inspired skit and include 14 commandments of relationships as interludes between tracks (e.g., “Thou shall not leave me wondering”). The skit and commandments don’t really match up, and it’s unclear how they’re intended to relate to the album’s Book of Daniel-alluding title. But the God/Godfather references nicely sum up the precarious position of Destiny’s Child at this time. They represented an authoritative version of black female empowerment on the one hand and a no-sex-before-marriage, chastity-first symbol on the other. They didn’t give a damn ‘cause you’re a bug a boo and wanted you to leave your man at home, but they also insisted, in their 13th commandment, “If thou can wait, then thou shall stay.” It was a thin, complicated line to walk, and they would gingerly balance on it for their next three albums, too. While it would be easy to chalk this up to careful marketing or to just skip over the passages where the album gets especially religious, it’s worth noticing the LP’s cubist approach to the corporeal: the body that’s God’s and the body that clubs exist along the same plane.

From the vantage point of 2019, it’s impossible not to read the album as a Beyoncé urtext, since her god-level fame has eclipsed the impressive talents and accomplishments of the group’s other members. (A special shout out goes to Kelly Rowland, whose songs and albums as a solo artist have also gone multiplatinum.) Beyoncé co-wrote 11 of the 16 tracks for The Writing’s on the Wall, many of which portray a direct, rightfully livid reaction to relationship treachery. Those 14 relationship commandments? Jay-Z had broken them all, in true bug a boo fashion, by the time Beyoncé released Lemonade in 2016. Even though Beyoncé had expanded and updated her sound considerably by working with producers like Hit-Boy and Diplo, it was her work with Destiny’s Child that had provided a template for more personal, painful tracings. Beyoncé suggested as much by reuniting the three-member version of Destiny’s Child for her 2018 Coachella performances. “Do y’all remember this song?” she inquired of the screaming crowd before jumping into an energetic rendition of “Say My Name.” The spirited cheers and singing along testified to the fact that they most definitely did.

On the surface, Beyoncé’s post-Writing’s career suggests a move away from collective to individual concerns. The album featured vocals by LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett, two of the original members of Destiny’s Child, alongside the voices of Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland. But by early 2000, Roberson and Luckett had fallen out with the other members of DC over disagreements about management and found themselves kicked out of the group. Beyoncé and Co. then threw salt in this wound with the success of “Survivor,” which many read as a vicious rebuttal to the negative comments Roberson and Luckett had been airing about the group. The teamwork aesthetic of Destiny’s Child, who had released songs directed towards all women (“Hey ladies/ Why is it that/ Men can go do us wrong?” they had asked), was called into question.

But Beyoncé’s recent work has revealed an artist that’s still as talented as anyone at balancing the personal with the collaborative and political. She may not always have the other members of Destiny’s Child at her side, but you would be crazy to imagine that her art exists purely for self-promotion or even that Beyoncé is a diva in any traditional sense of that term. “I wanted every person that has ever been dismissed because of the way they look to feel like they were on that stage. Killing ‘em. Killing ‘em,” she says of the work that went into her Coachella show during the first part of Homecoming, the Netflix documentary about that show. As Beyoncé speaks, a grainy sequence of images flickers across the screen. A variety of black musicians, dancers, singers and performers appear. Clearly moved and inspired by Beyoncé’s art, they work and prepare for what will likely go down in history as one of the most important concert experiences of all time. And the inspiration was mutual: Beyoncé effusively describes the swag of the performers, as well as the glorious effect this swag will have on the rest of the world.

In the same voiceover, she discusses that she had always wanted to go to an HBCU. But her life worked out differently. “My college was Destiny’s Child,” she attests. Seen this way, The Writing’s on the Wall is the most famous sophomore-year composition portfolio to ever exist. The assignment was to pen a successful pop song, and, as part of a collaborative effort, Beyoncé penned four and a few extra bops for the hell of it. The rest of her career, in Destiny’s Child and as a DC alum, has involved returning to these pop tunes to deconstruct and rethink them. Thanks to these efforts, the popular music landscape has transformed forever and ever, and the writing on the wall has revealed a single word: flawless.

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