Destiny's Child's The Writing's On The Wall turned 20. Its songs about honesty and relationships still resonate
Destiny’s Child’s sophomore album, The Writing’s On The Wall, was released on July 27th, 1999. To celebrate it’s 20-year anniversary, HG contributor Brooklyn White recalls the album’s discussion of honesty, relationships, and religion.
It is hard to forget that, in the beginning, Destiny’s Child was a group of Christian teenagers. After all, their name was inspired by a scripture from the book of Isaiah. Their rendition of “Amazing Grace” has too much spark to be voiced by purely secular artists. The Writing’s On The Wall—the title of their sophomore album, turning 20 years old this weekend—was taken from another Old Testament book, Daniel. The writing on the wall refers to the mysterious language that King Belshazzar saw written by human fingers on the walls (those fingers were assumed to be divine because they were not attached to a body). The writing was deciphered by a holy man who told the king his reign had come to an end and that he would be taking over the kingdom.
Perhaps that was the subconscious message of the album: Destiny’s Child had come to take the R&B throne.
The Writing’s on the Wall starts off with an ode-within-an-ode to 1996 action film Set It Off, particularly the iconic scene that referenced The Godfather. The four singers put on their best Italian accents (LaTavia’s won, by far) and discuss the trials of romantic relationships, focusing on problems like backstabbing, lying, and plain old hateration. It is here that Destiny’s Child explains the theme of the project: The Writing’s On The Wall will provide a new Ten Commandments to strengthen relationships and lessen the heartbreak that the group members, and anyone else in the world, will ever have to endure. This highly personalized religion—a blend of realistic spirituality and a romantic code of ethics—made Destiny’s Child sweet enough for grandma, and edgy enough for their hip fans.
Honesty with others, but more importantly, with one’s self, is a central aspect of any religion. It abounds on this album. The Missy Elliott-produced “Confessions” fleshes out all of the sins committed while in a monogamous relationship. Beyoncé weaves tales of financial finesse and infidelity, knowing full well that her truth telling may mean the end of the relationship. (But if this is the same cheapskate from “Bills, Bills, Bills,” then her behavior is easier to understand.)
“It’s this dedication to truth, even if it creates a negative portrayal of the speaker, that helps The Writing’s on the Wall resonate decades later.”
Similarly, on “Temptation,” Beyoncé playfully croons about the hot girl moments that almost led to some serious slip-ups (“I’ma write yo number in the palm of my hand/Oops I forgot, I got a man”), while borrowing the child-like melody from “This Old Man.” “Say My Name” is another call for honesty, with very little kindness extended to the alleged cheater because the clique knows exactly what’s going on—they’re just giving homeboy an opportunity to bow out with an iota of grace.
It’s this dedication to truth, even if it creates a negative portrayal of the speaker, that helps The Writing’s on the Wall resonate decades later.
Songs with less intense subject matter, like “Jumpin’ Jumpin’,” are still imbued with meaning. The track urges men and women to be emotionally independent and find a life outside of their partners, because part of being young is having some fun. Co-dependence isn’t the wave, and that’s the gospel truth.
The Writing’s on the Wall was somewhat of a sister project to TLC’s 1999 album FanMail. TLC was more acquainted with mainstream success at that time, but both Destiny’s Child and TLC’s efforts that year incorporated writing from Xscape’s Kandi Burruss and production from Kevin Briggs. Both albums spoke of a new era of romance, one where women made their own cash and called the shots. They really didn’t need men, but they were nice to have. And if they were going to be in the picture, they would have to be emotionally mature and their pockets would have to be full grown, too. Sorry fellas, no scrubs allowed.
“Both albums spoke of a new era of romance, one where women made their own cash and called the shots.”
The Writing’s on the Wall was the beginning of the end of Destiny’s Child as a quartet. By the time the largely monochromatic “Say My Name” music video was released, Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin had replaced LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett. To their childish fans, it was an effective slight of hand. But to a teen crowd, the transition was noticeable and quickly followed by a very public dismissal of Farrah. But that commotion didn’t hinder the group’s success, and they soared to new heights as a trio. In fact, they are possibly best remembered as a three-part girl gang, though I sometimes miss their four part harmonies.
Oh, and about that throne they suggested being ordained for? They got it—Destiny’s Child is one of the biggest selling girl groups of all time. Amen.