Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Destiny's Child 'The Writing's On The Wall' Turns 20



With those few notes, we're going back in time when LeToya Luckett, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson and Beyonce told off a trifling, good-for-nothing type of brother.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) At first we started out real cool, taking me places I ain't never been. But now you're getting comfortable, ain't doing those things you did no more. You're slowly making me pay for things your money should be handling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Bills, Bills, Bills" was a big hit for Destiny's Child, helping to make their second album, "The Writing's On The Wall," a critical and commercial success. Well, that album's release was 20 years ago this weekend - 20. I feel old. Reason enough to have music critic Ann Powers and NPR's Leah Donnella tell us how it's aged and what they thought when they first heard these songs back in 1999.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Can you pay my bills? Can you pay my telephone bills? Can you pay my automo-bills (ph)? If you did, then maybe we could chill. I don't think you do, so you and me are through.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: So I was 8 when "Bills, Bills, Bills" was first released. And so the first time I heard it, I was probably, like, sitting in the backseat of my mom's minivan. So I think I was, like, listening to it and jamming to it before I could even really process, like, what the lyrics meant.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Oh, silly me, why haven't I found another? I don't know. You trifling, good-for-nothing type of brother. Hey, hey, hey.

ANN POWERS: I think, Leah, you know, you being a kid when you heard that song - the power that the women of Destiny's Child were projecting was enticing to young girls. For me, it was a very different experience since I was in my 30s when that song came out. It was such a major wave, you know, of R&B and teen pop at that moment. Everything was changing.

DONNELLA: This was around the same time that Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were getting really big. And I think so many of the songs were very much like "(You Drive Me) Crazy," I'm so in love with you, like, women being in, I guess, lower status positions. So many of the songs on "The Writing's On The Wall" were about being in a position of power and being like, oh, you're cheating on me, or you're not paying your bills, or you're calling me too much or any of those things, and I think that's terrible, and I'm going to leave you.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Say my name. Say my name. When no one is around you, say Baby, I love you if you ain't running game. Say my name. Say my name. You acting kind of shady.

DONNELLA: Beyonce was 17 when this album came out, and it's not high school at all. It's not like, oh, I have a crush on this guy. Like, these songs are about money and independence. And so it's kind of remarkable to me that these were 17-year-olds singing about this stuff.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Ladies, leave your man at home. The club is full of ballers and their pockets full-grown. And all you fellas, leave your girl with her friends because it's 11:30, and the club is jumpin', jumpin'.

POWERS: When I hear this song today, I think, wow, in a way, it lays out so much of what Beyonce does musically.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Through parlaying at the hottest spot, tonight you're gonna find the fellas rolling in the Lexus, drops and Hummers. Though he say he got a girl, yeah, it's true you got a man, but the party ain't gon' stop, so let's make it hot, hot.

POWERS: To me, what makes Beyonce the remarkable vocalist that she is is her connection to hip-hop and her skill at singing kind of like a rapper, right? - the sharpness of her diction, her sense of timing, her sense of rhythm.

DONNELLA: It's almost like she's just saying the words. Like, obviously there's a melody, but she's saying them. And there's also so much, like, storytelling. She's laying out each thing that's happening in a very clear, precise way.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) You make me want to throw my pager out the window, tell MCI to cut the phone poles, break my lease so I can move 'cause you a bug-a-boo (ph), a bug-a-boo.

POWERS: The remarkable thing about "The Writing's On The Wall" is that it sounds like it could have come out this year.

DONNELLA: Yeah, I was so surprised how fresh it still sounds. I mean, there were obviously some kind of cheesy moments, and then there were some dated things, like, you know, using a pager or a beeper.

POWERS: Yes, the production is very late-'90s. We don't have all of the computerized bells and whistles that got developed over the past 20 years. But the dramatic structure of these songs, the stories that are being told, the assertion of - I'm going to call it the feminist attitude and dedication to expressing young women's empowerment - it's fresh. It's now. It's #MeToo.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) Out the window, tell MCI to cut the phone poles, break my lease so I can move 'cause you a bug-a-boo, a bug-a-boo, a bug-a-boo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's music critic Ann Powers and Leah Donnella of NPR's Code Switch talking about the album "The Writing's On The Wall" by Destiny's Child. It was released 20 years ago this weekend.


DESTINY'S CHILD: (Singing) that when I'm blocking your phone number you call me over your best friend's house... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.