Let’s start with a safe bet. At some point over the past two decades, you’ll have seen the video for Say My Name, Destiny’s Child’s 1999 hit that has since solidified into a bonafide R&B classic.
Beyoncé bobs to the beat in her micro-braids. Kelly hits every note with a vogue-like pose to match. Freshly-minted member Michelle swishes around unconvincingly in the background – but wait, who’s that other one?
No amount of smoke, mirrors and random backing dancers can distract from the fact that there is an erroneous child of destiny in this picture: Farrah Franklin, who was in the group for all of five months.
It’s a jarring reminder of the very slick group’s very messy beginnings. With original members LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett unceremoniously ejected after an attempted lawsuit, and Franklin’s short-lived tenure soon after, the drama swirling around Destiny’s Child’s second album could easily have overshadowed it.
But, despite the tabloids’ best efforts, The Writing’s On The Wall emerged unscathed, bursting with bangers and destined to become one of the best-selling R&B albums of all time.
Despite being only 17 when the album was released, Destiny’s Child had already cultivated a feminist message that stood out amid the saccharine girl-pop and heartbroken ballads of their contemporaries.
Playing off the theme of the 10 commandments, interludes like “Thou shall know when he’s got to go” punctuate songs about financial freedom, toxic relationships and sexual expression.
For artists who had lived so little, they managed to capture an impressively full picture of what it meant to be a woman.
There are the unashamed celebrations: opener So Good is boastful, laughing in the face of anyone who ever doubted them. Club anthem Jumpin’ Jumpin’ is an ode to having fun with your friends – and, more importantly, without your partner. Temptation tells the tale of a woman lusting after a man, a refreshing flip of the age-old script.
Then there are the warnings: beware of the scrub who won’t pull his weight, says Bills, Bills, Bills. Remove yourself from obsessive, claustrophobic relationships, says Bug A Boo. Don’t ignore the signs of a cheater, says Say My Name.
And it was these, the original “leave him, sis” anthems, that were far and away the biggest singles from the album. They validated so many women’s romantic experiences, giving us permission to point our fingers and nod our heads at each other in recognition.
They weren’t mopey, sentimental songs about heartbreak. They were knowing. They were powerful. They were full of fight.
And it’s no coincidence that, over the next 20 years, Beyoncé would weave this empowering magic into a personal brand – it’s evident on everything from Run The World (Girls) to Single Ladies to Sorry.
With writing credits on 11 of The Writing’s On The Wall’s 16 tracks and the lion’s share of the vocals, it’s fair to say this was a warm-up for baby Beyoncé.
Her father was no fool making the young Destiny’s Child sit and study videos of The Jackson 5 and The Supremes for hours on end – it was always the plan that Beyonce would go the way of Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, rising from a successful group to become a world-dominating star in her own right.
The fact that someone as talented and luminous as Kelly Rowland could be overshadowed is truly testament to Beyonce’s dazzling star quality, even as a teenager.
And as early as The Writing’s On The Wall, she was already head and shoulders above the rest, straining to get ahead. She was experimenting with what worked, what connected with women everywhere, and she’s been honing that craft ever since.
The chopping and changing of the group’s line-up would have detracted from the music in most cases, but the drama became background noise as we focused firmly on the woman standing in the spotlight.
A seminal classic, The Writing’s On The Wall was the official announcement that a star had been born. It gave us the first taste of the proud, joyful feminism so many of us were lucky enough to grow up on. Thou shall listen to it on repeat.