She Can’t Love You
A Lost Treasure: Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall at Twenty
I was just wondering…
IN THIS PHOTO: Destiny's Child at the 1999 MOBO Awards/PHOTO CREDIT: REX/Shutterstock
whatever happened to girl groups and why the scene faded away. Maybe music has changed and evolved now, so that girl groups seem outdated. We have female bands…but perhaps focusing on gender is the wrong thing to do. At a time when there is gender inequality and a need for progress, are girl groups a sign of the past? It is a hard question to answer but I do feel like there has been a change from those brilliant girl groups of the 1990s and the first few years of the 2000s. There have been girl groups in music for decades but I think there was a real peak in the 1990s. With the likes of Destiny’s Child, En Vogue and TLC ruling the charts and crafting these sublime R&B/Pop cuts, it was a golden time. Destiny’s Child, I feel, get overlooked and are not as lauded as the likes of TLC and En Vogue – or British counterparts such as the Spice Girls and All Saints. Whilst Destiny’s Child’s definitive line-up would come after The Writing’s on the Wall, one cannot deny the brilliance and resonance of the group’s second album. The album was produced by Missy Elliott, Kevin ‘She'kspere’ Briggs; Rodney Jerkins, Eric Nealante Phillips and Beyoncé among others. When many think of the best Destiny’s Child album, they often look at 2001’s Survivor. Sure, that album has some of their biggest cuts but I think most gravitate in the direction of Survivor because it seemed like the group were on a solid footing after some of the problems that arose around the time of The Writing’s on the Wall – and how there were disagreements and problems within the ranks.
Destiny’s Child are R&B icons and have influenced so many artists around the world. They are one of the best-selling female vocal groups ever and combined a strong sense of independence, these huge anthems with a vulnerability – not to mention fashion sense and incredible power. Other girl groups would form after Destiny’s Child split but many have them to thank for forming in the first place. The incredible tracks and empowering messages have inspired the likes of Tinashe and Ariana Grande. I shall muse more on the girl group but I do think, as it is twenty today, The Writing’s on the Wall warrants new investigation. I think the album is more confident than their eponymous 1998 debut and there is a greater range of sounds; more hits and stronger vocals from the group - Beyoncé Knowles, LeToya Luckett; LaTavia Roberson and Kelly Rowland. At sixteen tracks, The Writing’s on the Wall is an ambitious record and there are a few fillers in the mix. Everyone will have their own favourite numbers but, to celebrate twenty years of a great album, Billboard ranked the tracks. I can agree with most of their selections and it is clear the mighty Bills, Bills, Bills, Jumpin’, Jumpin’ and Say My Name are the biggest hits – and the songs everyone thinks of when they talk about The Writing’s on the Wall. Rather than sugar-coating love, Destiny’s Child often employed a cynical and jaded view – never off-putting or negative; they were definitely striking out and not taking any crap.
On tracks like Jumpin’, Jumpin’, the fellas are in the club; they are “ballers” and their pockets are “full grown” – the group would have observed these cheaters on the dancefloor; the kind of guys they would have known and been let down by. One of the biggest hits of the late-1990s was Bills, Bills, Bills and it is genuinely one of my favourite tracks from that era. At that time in music, there was a lot of great R&B emerging; some brilliant Dance music and Pop nestling alongside one another. These brilliant groups like Destiny’s Child were providing a great blend of R&B, Soul and Dance and, in the process, put down these hugely addictive and memorable tracks. You only need to hear a few licks of Hey Ladies, Say My Name or Bug a Boo and you are transported back to that time. A lot of tracks from that period do not stand up to ageing but The Writing’s on the Wall sounds as compelling and fresh now as it did twenty years ago. Maybe girl groups have died out but the harmony-rich sounds of Destiny’s Child and their peers have found a new home; they have made their way into the new generation but I still think there is a potency that you only get with girl groups. That harmony and richness is all over The Writing’s on the Wall; there are those slamming hits and lesser-mentioned songs that deserve new ears.
I especially love She Can’t Love You. It is a gorgeous track that has been written off a token Latin song – something that girl groups and Pop singers were doing; maybe an attempt to be seen as varied and eclectic but not as authoritative and complete as you’d hope. I think She Can’t Love You is one of the best tracks on the album and it is a song that, once heard, gets into the brain and infuses every pore. Others disagree but that is the mark of a great album: everyone has their own opinions as to which are the strong and weaker tracks. In all honesty, most of the tracks on The Writing’s on the Wall are brilliant and the album never gets the full respect it has earned. In this Pitchfork review from 2017 they passionately assess the album and talk about what was happening behind the scenes:
“There is no better microcosm of what happened to Top 40 music between 1993 and 1999 than this. Bands like the “Star Search” winner were buried in a landfill of post-grunge, while R&B groups built out from soul and quiet storm to create a sound innovative enough to earn the “futuristic” label almost everything got in that pre-Y2K time. This bore itself out in the revival in the early-to-mid-’90s of excellent girl groups vaguely in the Supremes mold—TLC, En Vogue, SWV—but it would be Destiny’s Child who would become their true successors.
PHOTO CREDIT: Markus Klinko
The Writing’s on the Wall, one of the best-selling R&B albums of all time, is perhaps most known for what was going on behind the scenes. In spring of 2000, founding members LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson fired, through an attorney, Mathew Knowles, the group’s replacement for late manager Andretta Tillman and, more importantly, Beyoncé’s father. They alleged that Mathew Knowles kept too much of the group’s profits and that the group’s attention was disproportionately allocated in favor of Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé, increasingly featured both as lead singer and in promo. “Ninety percent of the vocals you're hearing is Beyoncé and Kelly,” Mathew Knowles rebutted in the Houston Chronicle, “but they all got paid the same.”
The Writing’s on the Wall, by contrast, was recorded quickly, in about three weeks, and feels like it. Everyone sounds hungry, everyone has new ideas. You can tell from the intro alone: a Godfather-inspired sitdown, steeped in drama with a take of Spanish guitar from Andy Williams’ “Speak Softly, Love” and kept there by the four women styling themselves as Mafia dons—the capo di tutto capi played by, naturally, “Beyoncé Corleone, from the Southwest.” What seemed silly at the time coming from a barely established girl group makes more sense decades of concept albums and a world domination later.
The Writing’s on the Wall is presented with a loose religious theme—each track is introduced in the form of a Commandment, and the album ends with a prayer: “Amazing Grace,” dedicated to late manager Andretta Tillman. Specifically, its theme is confession: a catalog of relationships and the failings thereof…
This was, and is, fraught territory. Practically since the album’s release, Destiny’s Child have dodged accusations of man-hating. Beyoncé stood in front of that giant FEMINIST display at the VMAs not as a response to a couple of thinkpieces but to over a decade of misinterpretations of her work, starting here. Forget the dated technological references in “Bug a Boo,” its hapless-clinger archetype has stalked his way from pagers to cell phones to today’s social media. “Bills, Bills, Bills” was so vastly misunderstood the group had to patiently re-explain it in almost every interview”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The group were still in the teens when The Writing’s on the Wall was recorded so you can overlook minor flaws and some lyrical repetition; maybe some naivety regarding relationships and love. At the time, The Writing’s on the Wall received some muted acclaim but I think subsequent years have shown how influential it is. Its fusion of sounds and inspiring lyrical themes were carried into the next decade (the noughties) and Beyoncé especially would go on to huge solo success – not abandoning her Destiny’s Child roots; simply modifying the sounds and anthems to her own agenda. The confidence, quality and range on offer through The Writing’s on the Wall is amazing and I think that it is one of those albums that sort of got overlooked; it gained traction and relevance years after its release and, at a time when we do not really have girl groups like Destiny’s Child and fewer uplifting mainstream anthems, I think The Writing’s on the Wall is ripe for new reviews. It was a difficult period for Destiny’s Child and, whilst they would change line-up, the music on The Writing’s on the Wall is sensational! The big hits are timeless and instantly recognisable but there is more than the singles to get your teeth into. The Beyoncé-led group were providing inspiration and impetus to young women around the world but, in reality, The Writing’s on the Wall spoke…
TO so many more people.