Classic Album Review: The Writing Was Already on the Wall by Destiny’s Child’s Breakthrough

Beyoncé takes her first steps into the spotlight and towards her own destiny


When we talk about group dynamics, we’re really talking about power. Sometimes it’s the power to disrupt — to slow things down until you get your way. Sometimes it’s the power of refusal. Many band members have written a song, only to find out that the lead singer wouldn’t sing it. Sometimes it’s the power to leave the group behind.

Many groups start out with one dynamic and change later. Big Brother and the Holding Company were an established psychedelic rock band when their manager asked them to play with an unknown 23-year-old named Janis Joplin. Newspapers went from covering Big Brother as one of the biggest bands in San Francisco to writing about them as Joplin’s backup group. It’s hard to swallow your pride and allow an inexperienced young person to take over your band. As Joplin tried to assert more creative control, the band kicked her out. Now they’re just a footnote in her history.

Or consider the boyband NSYNC. They began as a copycat Backstreet Boys, before overtaking their rivals in 2000 with the record-breaking No Strings Attached. In that year, nobody in NSYNC would have traded places with any Backstreet Boy. And today? Well, the Backstreet Boys just finished a residency in Las Vegas and are embarking on their bajillionth world tour. They were fortunate, not just to have good chemistry, but to have relatively similar talent. NSYNC was blessed and cursed with Justin Timberlake, the biggest star to come out of any boy band from New Kids on The Block through One Direction. After Timberlake left NSYNC, his bandmates’ music careers never recovered.

The distribution of talent is rarely even, and it’s certainly not fair. LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett know this better than most.

Roberson and Luckett were two of the original members of “the hip-hop rapping Girl’s Tyme,” founded by Matthew Knowles. After a few changes to the lineup and a new name, Destiny’s Child settled in as a quartet. In addition to Roberson and Luckett, there were two cousins, Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland. Beyoncé, of course, was the daughter of manager Matthew.

Matthew Knowles was a medical salesman when he formed the group, and he certainly knew how to sell them to labels. Back when the girls were just called “Destiny,” he secured them a deal with Elektra. Destiny were dropped before they could release an album. Matthew quit his job, redoubled his efforts, and helped the group sign to Columbia.

Their first album, 1998’s Destiny’s Child, dropped into a crowded market for girl groups. TLC, Xscape, En Vogue, All Saints, and more helped define ‘90s R&B. Other acts like Blaque and 702 were trying to put out new music at the same time. In this environment, even good music might be overlooked.

Destiny’s Child’s first single, “No, No, No”, slowly crept up the Billboard Top 40. Backed by a remix from Wycleaf Jean, the song peaked at No. 3.

Suddenly, Destiny’s Child were the hottest new act in the country. Their first album had a couple of good cuts and a bunch of filler. Now they had access to the hottest ghostwriter in the country: Kevin “She’kspeare” Briggs, fresh off the blockbuster success of “No Scrubs”. Other songs came from Darkside, who had just penned Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”, and still others from the great Missy Elliott. It seems everyone was excited about Destiny’s Child. Well, at least one of the members of Destiny’s Child.

Because it was already clear that Beyoncé was the star. She was the leading voice on Destiny’s Child, but she would dominate on 1999’s The Writing’s on the Wall. The group dynamic had changed. From a young age, the girls had performed together. Now one was elevated above the others. As they were finishing The Writing’s on the Wall, this was bothering LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Tuckett.

It didn’t help that Matthew Knowles was paying himself above the standard management rate. He had financed the group and then quit his job to pursue this dream. He now felt entitled to a bigger share of the financial success. And that success was coming quickly. A month before their second album dropped, lead single, “Bills, Bills, Bills,” debuted at No. 84. Five weeks later, it was the No. 1 song in the country.

Written by Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs along with Kandi Burress of Xscape, the song brought new attitude to Destiny’s Child. If their debut album was about anything, it was about trying to find love. Now Destiny’s Child cared about something more: Respect. The protagonist of “Bills, Bills, Bills” isn’t some idle sugar baby. She’s tired of loaning out her car, her cell phone, her credit cards, and more. She’s an independent woman exhausted with her dependent man.

Buoyed by “Bills, Bills, Bills”, The Writing’s on the Wall entered the charts as the No. 6 album in the country. It opens with a playful, Godfather-inspired sketch. The girls are introduced with mobster names. In need of counsel, they seek out “Destiny’s Child’s Commandments for Relationships.” Every song is introduced with a menacing commandment, so yes, The Godfather is being blended with the Bible. It’s silly and fun, even if it does go on a bit long. The first song is introduced with Thou Shalt Not Hate.

After that comes Thou Shalt Pay Bills, Thou Shalt Confess, and Thou Shalt Not Bug. These four resulting songs fit together like gears in a clock. The glow-up of “So Good” whirls into “Bills, Bills, Bills”. With Missy Elliott’s help, “Confessions” spins into the catchy kiss-off of “Bug a Boo.” It’s a killer four-track run.

“Bug a Boo” is another single from She’kspere and Burress. Looking back, it’s clear She’kspere and Burress, an R&B trailblazer with Xscape, deserve at least some credit for shaping Beyoncé’s image. The attitude in these Destiny’s Child songs is, to a certain extent, the attitude of the ghostwriters. On the other hand, imagine She’kspere starting with the thin voices and clumsy flows of TLC and then moving on to Beyoncé. On “Bug a Boo”, Beyoncé just about sings faster than Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes ever rapped. Better yet, you can hear every word. This is the album where we start to appreciate Beyoncé’s incredible technical skill.

“Bug a Boo” was the last music video featuring Roberson and Tuckett. In December of 1999, they began a lawsuit. They hoped to get a new manager, someone objective who wasn’t related to Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé. They wanted a more standard financial arrangement with their manager. They wanted to be taken seriously as founding members of one of the most popular groups in the world.

They didn’t know they’d been kicked out until they saw the new music video on MTV.

Perhaps Roberson and Luckett had a point, and Matthew Knowles was stealing from them. Perhaps they took some bad advice. Perhaps they would have been unhappy as semi-anonymous backup dancers, always standing behind Beyoncé in slightly worse light. Or maybe they had been part of the group for so long that they couldn’t imagine it without them. Now, like Big Brother and the Holding Company, they are footnotes in someone else’s story.

Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin appeared in the “Say My Name” music video, pretending to sing Roberson and Luckett’s parts. The controversy helped promote the song, as did the color block music video directed by Joseph Kahn. The story within the song is wonderfully specific. The cheating didn’t happen in the past; it is currently happening during this phone call.

Produced by Darkchild (“The Boy Is Mine”), “Say My Name” is actually quite weird. The music starts out simply enough, with a melodic guitar and sharp 808s. But the chorus fills up with all sorts of musical boings and wobbles, with guitar wahs and electric beeps. It’s the melody, though, that is the most striking aspect of the song. The notes comes in staccato bursts, demanding perfect precision from vocal chords and tongue. Today we take for granted the influence of hip-hop on pop music. Destiny’s Child is a big reason why.

There aren’t many dull spots on The Writing’s on the Wall, but they have in common that they waste Beyoncé. “If You Leave” is a group duet with the ladies of Destiny’s Child and the gentlemen of Next. It’s a boilerplate ballad, like a B-side from K-Ci and JoJo. “Temptation” has a boring, undemanding melody. Considering the steamy subject, there’s a real lack of heat.

But altogether, and especially for a pop album, the non-singles are remarkably good. “Now That She’s Gone” would sound pathetic in a collection of love songs, but here it sounds vulnerable, like a rare moment of weakness. “Hey Ladies” vibrates with rage and frustration. The lyrics veer about for targets, sometimes twisting into self-loathing before lunging again at the cheating man.

The album’s layout is easy on the ear. Some albums frontload the singles and backload the ballads, which is like getting all the taco meat in one bite and all the sour cream in another. Here, there’s a really nice distribution of the uptempo, the down-tempo, and the earworms.

The Writing’s on the Wall produced one more single, “Jumpin’ Jumpin’”, which became their second No. 1. Having conquered radio, there was nothing left for Destiny’s Child to do but rule the clubs. The music video was the last to feature Farrah Franklin. She wasn’t a good fit for the group. Rather than replace her, Destiny’s Child downsized to a trio. Fittingly, Beyoncé recorded, “Jumpin’ Jumpin’” by herself, and so hers is the only voice we hear anyway.

By the end of the promotional cycle for The Writing’s on the Wall, the thing that was already happening behind the scenes exploded in front of our eyes. Beyoncé was the star. When two of the founding members disagreed, they were no longer part of the group. I don’t want to minimize their experience, which was no doubt full of mental distress. It’s hard thinking you’re part of the core and being told you’re not. Most of us would struggle. But it feels like they missed out. If you’re not a Destiny’s Child superfan, you might’ve already forgotten their names.

And as for Beyoncé, well, you know the rest. Her technical skills enabled her ghostwriters to join pop and hip-hop in fresh new ways. She learned from some of the top musical minds how to adopt an attitude and own it. Her chops would only get better, and her attitudes would become deeper, more personal. The Writing’s on the Wall was the beginning, the birth of the star. Up close, it can be a surprisingly violent moment. But from a distance, it sure is beautiful.

Essential Tracks: “Say My Name”, “Bug a Boo”, and “Bills, Bills, Bills”