Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson sat down at a table 20 years ago to reenact the “Godfather” scene from the 1996 film “Set It Off.” Their intentions for “The Writing’s on the Wall” were clear: get these fuckboys the hell up out of here. For the next 15 tracks, the Houston teens sang harmonious anthems letting haters know they were “So Good,” calling out a pressed “Bug a Boo” and asking why men do women wrong on “Hey Ladies.” And unlike their ballad-heavy debut album, the group rode the up-tempo beats with their distinct sing-rapping.
1999 was a remarkable year for the genre. That year, Whitney Houston’s “Heartbreak Hotel” with Kelly Price and Faith Evans peaked on the Billboard Hot 100, Mariah Carey released “Heartbreaker,” Brandy had us asking “Have You Ever?” and Blaque had a hit with “Bring It All to Me.” Crooners owned mainstream R&B, Monica, Maxwell and Ginuwine included. But artists like TLC, Missy Elliott and Timbaland were playing with a more hip-hop-leaning R&B by this time, making room for Destiny’s Child to flex.
“The Writing’s on the Wall” was not only the last album to feature all four original members, but it became the foundation of the group’s signature sound. It was a part of a new wave of R&B that would last for several years to come. The songs were original, with samples from only “Bug a Boo” and “Temptation,” and only included two features from Missy Elliott and Next. And the message was an affirmative, biblical even, body of female empowerment anthems as Destiny’s Child laid out the relationship commandments. Thou shall pay bills, thou shall not bug, thou shall confess, and so on.
The legendary status just jumped out.
“It was a sound that cut through everything else that was going on,” music industry veteran and writer Naima Cochrane told HuffPost during a phone conversation. “But still, it had elements of Missy in it, that futuristic kind of production, but it didn’t really sound exactly like anything else that was on the radio.”
The album, released July 27, 1999, earned the group its first two No. 1 records with the lead single “Bills, Bills, Bills” followed by “Say My Name.” The album debuted at No. 6 and remained on the Billboard Top 40 for most of that year. “Say My Name” earned Destiny’s Child its first Grammy. Produced by Missy, Kandi Burruss, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, D’wayne Wiggins, Chad Elliot, Daryl Simmons and Beyoncé herself, “The Writing’s on the Wall” is still Destiny’s Child’s best-selling album, moving more than 6 million units in the U.S. to date.
“The Writing’s on the Wall” encouraged women to know their value, walked no good men like dogs, sought reciprocity in relationships and reminded the boys that women know how to creep, too. The album told a story of empowerment. With this album, Destiny’s Child helped open the doors for Jazmine Sullivan to “bust the windows out your car” and Lizzo to remind y’all that her DNA test proves she’s “100 percent that bitch.”
Much of that messaging is thanks to singer and producer Kandi. Coming off of writing “No Scrubs” for TLC, the former Xscape member had a deal with Mathew Knowles, Bey’s dad and the group’s manager at the time, to work on only one song for the group, “Bug a Boo,” as the album was almost complete.
“That was around the time when a lot of people weren’t doing that type of writing style where it sounded like ‘sing-rapping,’” Kandi told Noisey in July. “If you think about all the music that came before that, it was more melodic. The lyrics weren’t as rappy, so the beats that we played for them were more hard and fast.”
They liked the sound so much that they restructured the album to include more tracks with a similar style. Kandi and She’kspere went on to write four songs on the album, “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Hey Ladies” and “She Can’t Love You.” She’kspeare also worked on “So Good.”
With the new sound and the empowering subject matter demanding equity in relationships, Kandi and She’kespere helped the group dance on unchartered territory. For a quartet still trying to earn its foothold in music while taking more creative agency over their music, that was a risk. The four teens had been singing together since 1990 when they were known as Girl’s Tyme. After a failed attempt to win Star Search, the group played the game of work hard and wait to catch their big break until they finally signed to Columbia Records in 1997. Their self-titled debut album, which was released in 1998, was driven by the group’s melodies and went on to platinum status.
The upbeat sound on “The Writing’s on the Wall” was a sonic departure from their debut album, sans “No, No, No Part 2,” heavily influenced by Wyclef Jean. In a 1999 interview, Beyoncé revealed how Destiny’s Child developed its signature sound.
“We were gonna totally change ‘No, No, No’ for the remix,” she said in the interview. “And [Wyclef] said, ‘No, girls, it’d be really phat if you girls sing it the exact same way but fast.’ And we were like, ‘No, Clef, it’s no way.’ He was like, ‘Yes.’ So … I was playing around and he was like, ‘That’s phat!’ I was like, ‘No, Clef.’ So he recorded it. I did it one time and he kept it and was like no, I’m not changing it. And that was the song right there. It worked for us so we ended up doing it other times on other songs.”
The mainstream critical acclaim was just not there initially. This was a group of teen girls talking their shit about bills, broke men and infidelity. Judging by the reviews, the music world wasn’t ready for that.
The Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield compared Destiny’s Child to TLC in a 1999 album review of “The Writing’s on the Wall”: “Despite OK moments like the ‘Waterfalls’ sequel ‘Sweet Sixteen,’ the Destiny children never find that one money tune that turns a no-no-no scrub into a yeah-yeah-yeah paying customer.” They were also getting accused of man-bashing on their album. New York group Sporty Thievz even wrote a diss track titled “No Bills, Bills, Bills.”
“The odds were definitely stacked against them when you consider that their biggest ‘rival,’ if you will, also put an album out in ’99,” Mike Hamilton, director of commerce at Epic Records, told HuffPost, referring to TLC’s “FanMail.” “I think that the sophomore album is always the make or break for any artist. That’s the album that there’s always more riding on it. I’m pretty sure they went into it thinking like, ‘There’s a lot riding on this,’ and they succeeded. That was the album that could have broken them and they completely took it to the next level.”
What critics may have not known, however, is that Destiny’s Child was helping usher in the sound of the new millennium. The heavy, futuristic production flirted with the pop charts nicely, but the scandal of Letoya and LaTavia getting fired and subsequent lawsuit mid-album cycle was the cherry on top. Folks became curious, especially after the “Say My Name” video dropped and two were absent. That curiosity led to even more commercial success for the album. The album’s highest-selling week came in 2000 over Christmas, more than a year after its release.
“When we talk about that transitional phase between the ’90s and the early aughts, I think that “The Writing’s on the Wall” is near the top of that list [of albums],” Cochrane said. “It set the tone for what mainstream R&B was gonna sound like for the next several years and the R&B sound that was neo-soul started moving into the adult urban lane. “The Writing’s on the Wall” is like that fork in the road between what started as mainstream R&B and what ended up becoming adult contemporary R&B.”
The high rotational value of this album cannot be overstated. When you think of music in 1999, “The Writing’s on the Wall” and its many anthems are at the forefront. And several girl groups at that time were embracing R&B’s new, empowering wave. TLC, Blaque, En Vogue and 702 all dropped classic albums that year that cemented R&B’s new direction. TLC’s “FanMail” is the only album from an R&B girl group in 1999 that has outsold “The Writing’s on the Wall” to this day.
“The thing about Destiny’s Child that was special was because they were a four-girl group and they had the harmony, the harmonies rode the rhythm and they still had a chance to shine through over everything that was happening in production and Bey specifically, obviously, even then, she was the dominant lead on every single track. So I do think that in that way, ‘Writing’s on the Wall’ is perfect, the quintessential 1999 album,” Cochrane said.
She referred to the album as “baby ‘Lemonade,’” because the album also set up Beyoncé’s solo career in a major way. From the sing-rapping to the hands-on production to the content matter, Beyoncé regularly reaches back to what worked on “The Writing’s on the Wall” as a solo artist. (See: “Kitty Kat,” “Upgrade U,” “Countdown,” “Sorry” and “Hold Up.”) Bey knows the work they put in to create “The Writing’s on the Wall” is the perfect formula. And it still works.
Long gone are the days of R&B girl groups dominating the Billboard charts, however. Cochrane called Destiny’s Child “the first of the last girl groups.” And, unsurprisingly, we miss it. Yes, this album was ahead of its time when it came to production and the overall messaging, but a huge reason we still play it is the same reason we want Destiny’s Child to do a reunion tour, following suit with Xscape, New Edition and B2K: nostalgia. “The Writing’s on the Wall” and its impact is a once in a lifetime experience. We didn’t realize it then, but 20 years later, it resonates like no other.
Thou shall never forget that.
“For The Love of 1999” is a weeklong series offering some totally bangin’ essays and analysis of some hot — or not — TV, music, movies and celebrities of 1999. Keep checking back this week for more sweet content.
(Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty)