In Party Like It’s 1999, I’m marking my birthday June 25th by reviewing every Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit from my birth year 1999 along with other notable hits from the year.
Destiny’s Child- “Bills, Bills, Bills”
HIT #1: July 17, 1999
STAYED AT #1: 1 week
One big part of pop music in 1999 was the boy band wars: Backstreet Boys vs. NSYNC. Both bands were pitted against each other by the media, marketers, and fans alike. It seemed like you liked one or the other no both. Passionate fans on both sides. If there was ever a girl group/R&B equivalent to all this, it would be TLC vs. Destiny’s Child.
The more I think about it, the more it all makes sense. You had one group that operated under an egalitarian rule. Every member did their parts without being overshadowed and there was never any threat of a solo career from any of the members. On the other hand, you had the group that clearly existed as a vehicle for one of its members often pushing that member to the front of the songs and treating the other members as mere background singers. And both group standouts went on to enjoy even bigger solo careers.
Furthering these comparisons is “Bills, Bills, Bills,” the first #1 for Destiny’s Child and its frontwoman Beyoncé which is about the same thing as “No Scrubs” the single TLC rode to #1 a few months before in telling off no good men and even shares the same producer and songwriters.
Destiny’s Child existed in one form or another since 1990 in Houston, Texas when Beyoncé Knowles and LaTavia Roberson first met while auditioning for a girl group. (The #1 song the week of Beyoncé’s birth: Diana Ross & Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love.” For Roberson, the #1 song for the week she was born is Daryl Hall & John Oates’ “Private Eyes.”) A couple of years later, Beyonce’s cousin Kelly Rowland joined the group which was then known as Girl’s Tyme starting out with six members. (The #1 song the week of Rowland’s birth: Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration”)
To help get Girl’s Tyme national exposure, the group performed on the popular TV talent competition show Star Search. The group lost the competition leading to Beyoncé’s father Mathew Knowles to manage the group even quitting his job as a medical supplies salesman. He cut the group down to four members and included a new girl LeToya Luckett. (The #1 song the week of Luckett’s birth: Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5”) After Star Search, the group went back to Houston and with the management of Knowles worked hard to build up their talent. They performed in Beyoncé’s mom’s hair salon, sang in church, took lots of dance and singing lessons, and opened for other R&B acts. After going through several name changes, they settled on Destiny’s Child which is said to be inspired by a Bible passage.
All this hard work and training began to pay off as Knowles secured Destiny’s Child a record deal with Columbia Records and in November 1997 released their debut single “No, No, No.” The original version of “No, No, No” is a sleepy R&B slow jam but thanks to a remix and a guest verse from Wyclef Jean, which turned the song into an uptempo R&B dance jam, it got traction on the charts peaking at #3. (It’s a 6. Wyclef Jean has reached #1 as a featured artist with his appearance on Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” in 2006. It’s a 9. As a lead artist, Wyclef Jean peaked at #7 with 1998’s “Gone Till November.” It’s a 6.) That success didn’t translate to their self-titled debut album which was a moderate hit peaking at #67 on Billboard’s album charts.
For their second album, The Writing’s On The Wall, Destiny’s Child brought in various producers including Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs who’d worked with fellow R&B girl groups like TLC and Blaque including TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Working with fellow “No Scrubs” writer and former Xscape member Kandi Burruss, they had written a song “Bug-A-Boo” intended to be their only song for the album. But when the group didn’t like the song, Burruss and She’kspere came up with a new melody that the girls started to get into. That led to the team writing five songs for the album including “Bills, Bills, Bills.”
She’kspere and Burruss first came up with “Bills, Bills, Bills” while at a grocery store in Houston during one of their visits with Destiny’s Child. She’kspere developed the hook while Burruss developed the melody and came up with lyrics about a guy she dated which as she put it “He was driving my car and I’m putting gas in it, and he’s using my cell phone.” They brought it to the group and wrote the rest of the song together with an emphasis on guys taking advantage of their girlfriends. Talking to Fred Bronson in Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits Beyoncé said, “She’kspere kept humming the melody to the chorus. It was so catchy. We loved it. We knew then it was a hit but we weren’t sure of what the song was talking about. Why would we ask a guy to pay our bills? Only if he ran them up! We wrote the verses about him taking advantage of us even though nobody really paid attention to that part. People took it the wrong way.”
Lyrically, “Bills, Bills, Bills” is not a whole lot different from “No Scrubs” though where TLC sang about rejecting guys wanting to date them, Destiny’s Child sing about rejecting guys they are dating. The group sings about being taken advantage of by a certain guy. Things start out good but soon enough this guy becomes too comfortable in relying on their finances. He’s using his girlfriend’s money and credit card to pay for his indulgences as well as using his girl’s cell phone and car a lot without paying for any of it. On the chorus, the girls say if he paid those bills they could be cool but are now through because he’s too lazy and inconsiderate to think better.
Despite the group being four members, Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland mainly take lead vocals which would become a big source of tension as you’ll see later on. Even as a teenager, you can hear what we would all come to expect from Beyoncé. She doesn’t sound all that different with her soulful vocal runs, singing in sophisticated hip-hop cadences and flows, and often singing about being wronged by men. The fact that she’s able to rap and make more hip-hop oriented music with her husband JAY-Z and recently with Megan Thee Stallion shouldn’t come as a surprise listening to those early Destiny’s Child tracks.
The production is also not a whole lot different from “No Scrubs.” She’kspere uses a lot of the same elements with the processed glossy acoustic guitars, bubbling noises, and hip-hop style drum beats. It sounds cool but doesn’t hit the same way as it did in “No Scrubs.” Same with the performances. Even though the group members sing and harmonize well, it doesn’t leave too much of an impression after listen. It doesn’t have the fun singalong catchiness that “No Scrubs” had.
While Destiny’s Child would go on to greater success in the next few years, “Bills, Bills, Bills” became the only #1 for two of its members. Roberson and Luckett wanted to break from Mathew Knowles’ management feeling that he was giving more attention to Beyonce and Rowland increasing tension in the group. The two of them were kicked out of the group only after seeing the video for their 2000 #1 hit “Say My Name” which showed two new girls alongside Beyoncé and Rowland. Those two new girls, Michelle Williams and Farrah Franklin, were brought in to replace Roberson and Luckett though Franklin left the group soon after leaving Destiny’s Child as a trio.
Roberson and Luckett sued the group and Mathew Knowles for breach of partnership and fiduciary duties. The suit would later be settled but the bad press it generated didn’t make the group, especially Beyoncé look good. But it didn’t hurt them in the long run as they would enjoy greater success and of course Beyoncé would enjoy even greater success on her own. But listening to “Bills, Bills, Bills” it was all right there in the beginning.
BONUS BEATS: Sporty Thievz, the same group behind their “No Scrubs” response “No Pigeons,” released their response to “Bills, Bills, Bills” titled “No Bills.” Here’s the track: