Music by VICE

Destiny's Child's 'The Writing's on the Wall' Was Never About Bashing Men

Twenty years later, songwriter Kandi Burruss reflects on how songs like "Bills, Bills, Bills" harnessed the album's iconic message.

by DeAsia Paige
Jul 25 2019, 3:03pm

Jim Seal/Getty Images

Long before Beyoncé graced the 2014 MTV VMA Awards stage in front of a giant screen bearing the word "FEMINIST," or the release of Lemonade in 2016, her feminist politics could be heard on Destiny Child's innovative 1999 sophomore album The Writing's on the Wall. The album, which followed the group's eponymous debut, allowed the world to hear a different side of Destiny's Child, one that ultimately cemented group's place in R&B.

Sprinkled with hits like "Bills, Bills, Bills," "Say My Name," and "Bug a Boo," The Writing's on the Wall was an album of empowering anthems that gave women advice about knowing their worth. The album's Ten Commandment-like instructional format sounds a lot like the empowerment narratives of modern artists like Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion, illustrating its impact for future generations. The album was a departure from the neo-soul vibe of their debut album, and was the result of the group having more creative control over their sound and presenting new ideas. Those ideas included enlisting hitmakers like Missy Elliott and Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins for the album's production. It also included songwriting duo Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs" and former Xscape member Kandi Burruss, who were fresh off the success from writing TLC's hit single "No Scrubs."

The album wasn't without controversy, though. In 2000, founding members of Destiny's Child LaTavia Roberson and Letoya Luckett fired their manager Mathew Knowles (Beyoncé's father), claiming that he unfairly favored Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland. Shortly after, the video for "Say My Name" was released, and it didn't feature Roberson or Luckett. Instead, it featured their replacements: Farrah Franklin and Michelle Williams. Roberson and Luckett filed a lawsuit against Knowles and their former bandmates, but eventually agreed to a settlement in 2002.

However, The Writing's on the Wall's success was impervious to tabloid drama; the album peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 chart. Additionally, "Bills, Bills, Bills" became the group's first No. 1 hit. Ahead of the The Writing's on the Wall's twentieth anniversary, VICE caught up with Burruss, who wrote five songs on the album ("Bills, Bills Bills," "Bug a Boo," "Hey Ladies," "She Can't Love You," and So Good"), to talk about its impact and legacy.

VICE: How did you get involved with The Writing's on the Wall?
Kandi Burruss: They had set up She'kspeare for him to come down to Texas to work with them, but at the time he and I were writing a lot of music together. He just felt comfortable working with me, and he wanted me to come on the trip with him.

What was your approach to writing songs for the album?
Initially, before we went down there, we just kind of wanted to have a couple of ideas in place, and I wanted to be sensitive about the situation, because my group Xscape and their group was under the same label. So So Def was under Columbia, so I didn't want them to feel a way about me just showing up to work on their album. I think the first [single] we had in mind was "Bug A Boo," but basically, I would kind of have an idea of what the melody should be; the concept and partial lyrics. A lot of times, I would already have the hook together and the melody of what the verse should be. I left a little open so that they could have input as well. That was kind of our thought process going into this because [Mathew Knowles] really didn't think we were going to be able to come up with something more than the people he already had in mind.

That must've been a bit intimidating.
It was cool because at the time the only song we had playing was "No Scrubs." I think, at that time, "No Scrubs" was either not released yet or didn't have enough buzz yet, but, either way, She'kspeare and I were new as a team, so I get that her dad wanted them to work with all the heavy hitters at the time for their second album.

This album has been praised for being the definitive project for Destiny's Child's sound. What made their sound different?
That was around the time when a lot of people weren't doing that type of writing style where it sounded like "sing-rapping." 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. For instance, "Bug A Boo," [...] when I started singing them the melody I heard in my head for the verses and the concept of the hook, they liked it because the track was so crazy without the lyrics and melody on top.

Nicky J. Sims/Getty Images
Nicky J. Sims/Getty Images

What was it like working with Destiny's Child?
It was really great working with them. Their mom was so sweet, and everyone was super cool. Even at the time, Beyoncé would produce a lot of their background vocals, and she was a leader even at a young age. They were working so much at the time. Even though they were in between albums, it was like [Mathew Knowles] didn't want them to take no break, so if they were in the studio for three or four days, the other days of the week, they were out to do shows. They didn't have any days off. I remember being in the studio with them for a couple of days, and the chemistry was great. On our first trip working with them, we really connected. We collaborated on a couple of songs and they loved the way those turned out, and they wanted to do some more. We came back for a second trip, and we finished whatever we didn't finish on the first trip, so we ended up with like five songs on the album.

Some of the songs that you wrote from the album kind of have the same empowerment theme as "No Scrubs" Was that intentional?
You know what's so funny? Back then, I had got stuck with the title of "the girl who writes male-bashing records." It was so funny to me because I guess the record I did with [TLC], the record I did for P!nk, which was "There You Go" they were about bad relationships too, but it wasn't intentional. A lot of records that I've done reflected whatever my situation was and past relationships, and the way I vent is through my lyrics. I can look at certain records, and I know exactly what inspired them. I felt like it was something a lot of people could relate to.

The album had some men in their feelings. Sporty Thievz released a response track to "Bills, Bills, Bills" titled "No Bills, Bills, Bills." How did you feel about that?
All of the song weren't like that. Yeah, you had "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Hey Ladies," but the other songs we did like "So Good," which wasn't even about a relationship. They didn't just have male-bashing records. The album was hot, and it did great, so it is what it is.

That single was also Destiny's Child's first No.1 hit. Were surprised by its success?
That whole year for me was just a great year. It was back-to-back big records, and I just looked at it as a blessing. I mean, I didn't know that it was going to do what it did, but I knew I loved it and Sh'ekspeare loved it and the girls loved it.

The themes throughout The Writing's on the Wall are similar to the women empowerment music that artists like Rihanna, Lizzo, and Megan thee Stallion are making now. Do you think it opened the door for more feminist music from Black women artists?
For sure. There has always been some strong female anthems on there, but that era set it off for what's to come. I definitely feel like there were a lot of girl power going on in the music at the time. This album I feel like really established them as a group because their personalities definitely came out. I love Megan's music too. Megan is very straightforward and upfront. She's able to say what everyone is afraid to say out loud. And, in that sense, [The Writing's on the Wall] is the same way because you ain't just get a lot of women back then just coming straight out and be like, 'well, can you pay my bills, what's up?' Clearly, back then, a lot of women may not have been upfront with their feelings but they could just turn that album on if they were feeling a way.

How do you think the album should be remembered today?
It's an album for anthems. That album really made you dance and it kinda gave you some ballads, but, for the most part, it kept things upbeat, and I think that's how they were different than a lot of other artists. People always used to wonder like, 'well, what makes them different from other R&B girl groups, and how does their album cross over?' I felt like it was because they gave you more music to dance to. Even though it showed their vocals, they were somehow able to give you records that you could play in the club like "Jumpin, Jumpin." When you think of R&B, you don't think of club records, and they showed that they could do it all. They can serenade you and they can make you dance.