I love Destiny’s Child. Not in some condescending indie-rock foo-foo “my pet pop band” way, but truly, madly, deeply. I love D.C. because they sing about things I can understand, rock genuinely without anyone‘s urging and are musically unpredictable. When they’re in bounce-and-berate mode, they‘re somewhere between Husker Du and Sly & the Family Stone. They bring More Stuff, and I subscribe to the belief that More is usually More when we’re trying to dance and talk about our lives at the same time.
In four short years, lead vocalist Beyonce Knowles and her group have gone from singing other people‘s half-baked tunes to creating their own female-empowerment funk. They’ve sold 15 million albums worldwide, and can outshine both TLC and Le Tigre on a good day. Beyonce‘s vocal arrangements and lyrics have revitalized R&B singing; and if there are any other teenage R&B auteurs out there listening to Miles Davis and Fela on the tour bus (that’s from the horse‘s mouth), we don’t know who they are.
The group‘s music, though, is generally treated as a footnote to the alleged interpersonal dramas (departed members, lawsuits filed by manager-father, etc.) or as a byproduct of videos. Otherwise intelligent people tend to attribute the success of R&B pop like Destiny’s Child, circuitously, to its presupposed popularity, or to teenagers‘ underdeveloped tastes, or to Destiny’s American thighs. Why won‘t anyone believe this group’s success is as much a product of their music as their glamazon teen image?
Round up the usual suspects: racism, sexism and disco-sucks rockism. R. Kelly and D‘Angelo are the only full-package R&B auteurs recognized in any way by the establishment; Mary J. Blige is considered, rightly or wrongly, as “just” a singer; and producers like Timbaland, not performers, get the big ink from critics. Modern R&B could never produce a really great album like OK Computer, could it, or a really great band like, er, Pavement? And heck, Destiny’s Child — they‘re just a bunch of girls, right?
Maybe they were once, yes. Do you remember Destiny’s Child‘s first single, “No, No, No (Part 1)”? A standard-issue black bourgie R&B quiet stormer, “No, No, No” was released first as a video in late 1997. The album due in 1998, Destiny’s Child — more faceless melisma in swanky duds — wouldn‘t have saved the group from the R&B purgatory that swallowed Allure and 702. What changed the game was a 1997 remix of “No, No, No” by the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean. The beat strobes between heavy and light, flickering into double time while Beyonce‘s voice quavers, punches and signifies so hard you can almost see her head snapping. The remix uses the same lyrics as the first version, but the effect is entirely different: Beyonce is no longer asking her lover, she’s telling him. In the video, Beyonce does a little choo-choo stutter step and the concept is clear: “Boy, you‘d better catch up.” The song was Destiny’s first hit, and Team Destiny learned its lesson quickly: funky advice up front, ballads to the back.
In the same way that Nashville veteran Shelby Lynne can be awarded a best “new artist” award, Destiny‘s Child’s 1999 sophomore album, The Writing‘s on the Wall, was their debut. Bouncing and scolding, Beyonce found her voice, and the group found its demographic: anyone who wanted to feel strong and dance and wear little bikinis made out of shattered gold plastic, but didn’t want to resort to violence to get what they wanted. In other words, all of us.
There‘s no doubt that bringing on a song doctor like Kandi Buruss and producers like Rodney Jerkins for The Writing’s on the Wall helped squeeze out Destiny‘s soft, cheesy filling. But look closely at the credits: Beyonce wrote or co-wrote almost every song, and on “Jumpin’,” the fourth of four Top 10 hits from the album, she‘s the only writer credited aside from the producer.
For Destiny’s new album, Survivor, it‘s all Beyonce. Aside from a Bee Gees cover and a big-bucks Walter Afanasieff ballad, all the songs are Beyonce compositions. (In R&B and rap, the terms of art go like this: The “song” refers to everything sung, and the “track” refers to the music and beats. On Survivor, the producers provided the latter by mail to Beyonce, who wrote and recorded all of the former with the ladies, rarely the twain meeting. This may reinforce rockists’ prejudice that Destiny‘s Child will not make their Music From Big Pink, but I respectfully submit that the shortcomings of postal songwriting are no more severe than the shortcomings of introspective studio hibernation. And nobody ever backed it up to “The Weight.”)
Beyonce’s lyrics represent her Populism — tough, funny distillations of conversational wisdom — but she puts her Art into the fluid, surprising vocal arrangements. (Survivor must be the only R&B album in recent memory where the vocals are more adventurous than the beats.) “Apple Pie a la Mode” is Beyonce as the aggressor, pushing up on a “scrumptious” suitor: “Hey boy, would you enjoy sitting next to me in your corduroys? I‘m from Texas, my girl’s from Illinois.” The run-on come-on bobbles and wobbles over the bar line, none of it in straight time. When she sings, “Finest thing you ever did see” in the lowest register you‘ve ever heard her attempt, it’s all over. Knees buckle, banks default, IPOs come to a halt. The harmonic motion is more Prince than Max Martin, and her lyrics are more Biggie than — well, few of her peers write their own lyrics. And that‘s just the first verse.
“Bootylicious” is Beyonce’s combination of “Wanna Be Startin‘ Something” and “Baby Got Back,” a pro-flesh anthem riding a Stevie Nicks sample. If the racial specificity of the song escapes you on the first few listens, try to imagine any white woman in Christendom singing, “I don’t think you‘re ready for this jellyis my body too bootylicious for you, babe?” Not exactly Burn, Hollywood, Burn, but it’s an anthem if you want it to be.
Oh, anthems. The title track blinks like an APPLAUSE sign while Beyonce does her victory lap, the helicopter circles and the ladies stand at attention. For every potential failure she can think of — “thought I‘d be helpless without you” — Beyonce comes back with a reason she’s going to make it — “but I‘m smarter.” She sings it like she’s astride some big, hairy horse, heading for the ramparts. Kelly plays specific to Beyonce‘s archetypal, promising not to attack the nameless person who has dared to doubt D.C. on the radio or in the magazines. Kelly sings, “You know I’m not gon‘ diss you on the Internet,” and the ladies bring home the harmony with “’Cause my mama taught me better than that.” It‘s masterful pop songwriting, bringing common emotions to boil by using simple words in unexpected combination.
Their Mama-centric, church-steeped Southern upbringing runs through their songs like DNA. When they strike back, they do it in character. “Nasty Girl” is addressed to a “nasty,” “trashy,” “sleazy,” “classless” girl, whom Beyonce repeatedly instructs, “Don’t walk out your house without your clothes on, I told you,” and warns, “Everyone knows she‘s easy,” and if that seems puritanical to you, give the song credit for being contra the trend for women in R&B to roll over and show their tummies at the first Ruff Ryder’s bark.
The only thing holding Beyonce back from her Off the Wall may be the current standard ops for R&B and pop record making, and Team Destiny‘s practice of selling before producing. (D.C.’s steroid promo schedule hasn‘t included a lot of woodshedding time.) And as impressive as many of the songs are, a little face time with collaborators might take the crew further, even into Thriller territory. For example, Destiny’s most musical and emotionally complex tune to date, “Say My Name,” was a product of D.C. and Rodney Jerkins‘ team sitting in a room together and writing. The fact that Survivor could stand so tall without that kind of help makes one a little anxious for another, more gently birthed album. (Beyonce’s solo album is tentatively slated for 2002, so dream on.)
Beyonce transforms cliches like goodness, the church and your parents into the cool impenetrability that millions are looking for in transgressive Goth and thug rap. While wearing a silver bikini. The Michael Jackson parallel looks better and better: wholesome impulses, virtuosic artistry and fierce commerce merged into a seamless bundle that only the insensate or fatally grouchy could deny. Ching!