In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The power is the money. The money is the power. Minute after minute. Hour after hour. Beyoncé Knowles has ascended to pop-deity status over the past few decades mostly by singing, brilliantly, about the power dynamics of romantic relationships. In that time, she’s also dealt with different ever-shifting systems of power — with the group that made her famous, with her husband, and with the rest of the pop charts in general. Time and time again, money has defined that sense of power.
As I write this, Beyoncé’s new single “Break My Soul” is sitting at #9 on the Hot 100 after reaching a #7 peak. (It’s a 9.) On that song, Beyoncé sings about being economically exploited and taking control: “Now, I just fell in love/ And I just quit my job/ I’m gonna find new drive/ Damn, they work me so damn hard.” Even amidst the hosannas that always greet a new Beyoncé record, those lines have incurred some online grumbles. After all, Beyoncê is a hugely successful pop-culture institution, way more boss than worker. She’s more likely to fire you than to quit her job. But Beyoncé has always been attuned to her moment, and the moment called for a fuck-this-shit-I’m-out song.
Twenty-three years before “Break My Soul,” the moment was different, and so were the power dynamics. The first of the many #1 hits to bear Beyoncé’s name concerned a whole different cash flow issue. On “Bills, Bills, Bills,” Beyoncé’s job wasn’t exploiting her. Instead, the song is directed at a no-account layabout boyfriend who spends all her money and who offers no support. That whole situation is no longer relevant to Beyoncé, who will never need anybody’s help to pay her automobills again. In 1999, though, economically unbalanced relationships were a hot pop-music issue, and Destiny’s Child rode that issue to the top of the Hot 100.
In retrospect, “Bills, Bills, Bills” looks like the beginning of a long journey towards dominance. In the moment, though, it probably felt like the culmination of years of effort. Beyoncé Knowles was 17 years old when “Bills, Bills, Bills” reached #1, and all the other members of Destiny’s Child were around the same age. They’d all been trying to achieve pop stardom for the better part of a decade.
Beyoncé Knowles was born in Houston, the daughter of a Creole hair salon owner and a Black medical supplies salesman. (Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love” was the #1 song in America at the time of Beyoncé’s birth.) Beyoncé went to Catholic school and studied dance, and her dance teacher was the first to notice how well she could sing. In 1990, when she was eight years old, Beyoncé auditioned for the Houston-based girl group Girl’s Tyme, and that’s where she met LaTavia Roberson, a child model who wanted to rap.
Beyoncé and LaTavia both made the cut for Girl’s Tyme, and the group hit the Houston talent-show circuit. Soon enough, the group added a sixth member, LaTavia’s elementary-school friend Kelly Rowland. Kelly’s home situation was so chaotic that she eventually went to live with Beyoncé’s family. Before long, Girl’s Tyme got the call to compete on Star Search, and they lost to a band called Skeleton Crew. Beyoncé would later sample Ed McMahon’s voice on “Flawless,” a truly great 2013 track that peaked at #41.
After Girl’s Tyme lost on Star Search, Beyoncé’s father Mathew quit his job and took over as the group’s manager. He fired three of the members and added one new singer, Beyoncé’s friend LeToya Luckett. Mathew went full stage-dad, making the group practice relentlessly. Sometimes, they’d sing for tips at the beauty shop owned by Beyoncé’s mother Tina, who also acted as the group’s stylist. Eventually, Girl’s Tyme got chances to open for national R&B groups when they’d come through town. The group went through a bunch of different names, and they eventually signed to Elektra when they were known as Destiny. But Elektra dropped the group, and they became Destiny’s Child, named after a Bible passage that Tina had picked out. Destiny’s Child soon signed with Columbia, and they made their on-record debut when their song “Killing Time,” co-written and produced by Tony! Toni! Toné! member D’Wayne Wiggins, appeared on the Men In Black soundtrack.
Destiny’s Child’s self-titled 1998 debut is mostly expansively staid adult-contempo R&B. The LP eventually went platinum, but it didn’t sell well at first. The album’s one hit was the track that took the group out of their balladeer mode. Wyclef Jean co-produced and rapped on a remix of the group’s song “No, No, No.” Its big, loping beat and its hypnotic hook had an energy that the rest of the album lacked. It’s possible that the remix saved the group. In any case, it became their first single and their first hit, peaking at #3. (It’s an 8. Wyclef’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 1997’s “Gone Till November,” peaked at #7. It’s a 10. As a guest and a songwriter, Wyclef will eventually appear in this column.)
When Destiny’s Child made their 1999 sophomore album The Writing’s On The Wall, things had shifted. Mathew Knowles had realized that this group was young and that it should sound young. At the same time, R&B was going through a creative explosion, and Destiny’s Child were in a good place to take advantage. There are a few sleepy ballads on The Writing’s On The Wall, but the album also showcases the work of adventurous producers and songwriters like Missy Elliott and Rodney Jerkins. For the first single, Destiny’s Child worked with the team that had just made one of the year’s biggest hits.
Kandi Burruss, the former Xscape member and future Real Housewife, had been the primary author of “No Scrubs,” the TLC blockbuster that reached #1 a few months before “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs co-wrote that song, and he also produced it. Destiny’s Child had nearly finished work on The Writing’s On The Wall when they sent She’kspere and Burruss down to Houston to work with Destiny’s Child. She’kspere had been told that there was only space on the album for one more song. Destiny’s Child had not been told that Burruss was coming, and to hear Burruss tell it, they weren’t thrilled to see her. The members of the group weren’t sure about the track that She’kspere produced, but they did like the melody that Burruss came up with for it. That song became “Bug-A-Boo,” the album’s second single, and it peaked at #33.
She’kspere and Burruss ended up with much more than one song on the album. They became two of the album’s dominant creative forces, working on five different songs. On a second trip to Houston, Burruss came up with the “Bills, Bills, Bills” hook while grocery shopping. Lyrically, that hook has a lot in common with what she’d already written on “No Scrubs.” Like that song, “Bills, Bills, Bills” is a shot at a guy who’s a financial drain on his girlfriend; Burruss even reuses the word “scrub.” Like “No Scrubs,” “Bills, Bills, Bills” is also about one of Burruss’ ex-boyfriends. Years later, Burruss said that the ex-boyfriend in question was actually dating a member of Destiny’s Child when she wrote the song: “I didn’t tell them that some of the lyrics in there were inspired by him.” Burruss didn’t identify the ex or the group member he was dating.
The members of Destiny’s Child were worried that “Bills, Bills, Bills” would make them sound like they only cared about money, so they rewrote the song’s verses themselves. Beyoncé, Kelly, and LaTavia all have writing credits on the track. Those verses make it clear that the guy in the song is actually exploiting the narrator: “And now you ask to use my car/ Drive it all day and don’t fill up the tank/ And you have the audacity to even come and step to me and/ Ask to hold some money from me until you get your check next week.”
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Beyoncé says, “It was so catchy. We loved it. We knew it was a hit, but we weren’t sure 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.” Maybe “Bills, Bills, Bills” was just too catchy. The hook, with Destiny’s Child asking whether the guy can pay their telephone bills and their automobills — a great word that only exists in the context of this song — is vicious and memorable enough to overwhelm the rest of the track. Destiny’s Child sound like they’re taunting this trifling good-for-nothing type of brother for the crime of being broke. But they sound amazing doing it.
Look: We can talk all day about the financial and sexual politics of “Bills, Bills, Bills,” or even about how it recycles the messages that two of the songwriters had used on “No Scrubs” a few months earlier. But those lyrics aren’t why “Bills, Bills, Bills” hit the way that it did. Instead, “Bills, Bills, Bills” worked because it sounded like the future. “Bills, Bills, Bills” opens as a duet between a chopped-up synthetic harpsichord and a tiny stuttery dinging sound. She’kspere layers in his trademark bubble-pop noise, syncopated skitter-burst drums, and sci-fi synth tones that don’t even bother to sound like real strings.
Timbaland’s radical sensibility had been absorbed into the R&B mainstream a couple of years earlier, but that didn’t make a track like “Bills, Bills, Bills” any less disorienting. An instrumental version of “Bills, Bills, Bills” could’ve fit pretty seamlessly onto an Aphex Twin record. This was a glorious moment, a time when the biggest hitmakers in the world were also some of the furthest-out musical experimenters. “Bills, Bills, Bills” is a deeply complicated production made up to sound simple. For that, it needs the singers in Destiny’s Child.
Mathew Knowles’ R&B boot camp served Destiny’s Child well on “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Those singers were still kids, so they didn’t have to do much adjusting to fit She’kspere’s style. She’kspere and Kandi Burruss were amazed at how gifted the young singers were, how they could sing layered and complicated melodies without any help. “Bills, Bills, Bills” puts those gifts to work. On the verses, Beyoncé delivers a whole lot of lyrics in a syncopated bounce, projecting strength and aggravation while jumping in and out of the track’s pocket. She’s almost rapping. So is Kelly Rowland, who sounds well and truly fed up on the pre-chorus, sneering at “a scrub like you who don’t know what a man’s about.” The chorus, with all four singers joining up together, is a silky earworm that builds to a devastating conclusion: “I don’t think you do, so you and me are through,” delivered over that harpsichord with a prim precision that makes me think of some 17th-century royal court.
“Bills, Bills, Bills” is one of those classic examples of how pop music can work, how the way that you say something can be so much more important that what you’re actually saying. The lyrics are trite and avaricious battle-of-the-sexes stuff, and they rip off another song that had only just made those exact same points more smoothly. But that doesn’t matter one bit when the song is so layered and sophisticated and catchy and mind-boggling. This is such prime spaceship-era R&B that it was almost surprising that Destiny’s Child didn’t adapt a sci-fi setting for the video. Instead, they played fantastically put-together hairdressers, paying homage to their time singing in Tina Knowles’ hair salon. (The video’s hair salon is, however, awfully sleek and geometrically designed — almost like a spaceship.)
“Bills, Bills, Bills” was the first indication that Destiny’s Child could adapt to the sound of the moment while also transcending it. These kids had ditched their boring old sound, tapping into something sleek and playful instead, and they had made something special. They would go on to make a whole lot of other hits that were just as bright and inventive, if not more so. We will see plenty more of Destiny’s Child in this column, and then we’ll see a whole lot more Beyoncé after that.
BONUS BEATS: The Yonkers rap group Sporty Thievz had a surprise hit with their “No Scrubs” answer song “No Pigeons,” so they naturally attempted something similar with “Bills, Bills, Bills.” In 1999, Sporty Thievz used the “Bills, Bills, Bills” beat for their supremely goofy answer song “No Billz (Why, Why, Why).” This time, it didn’t hit. Here’s the song:
(Sporty Thievz’ highest-charting single, 1999’s “No Pigeons,” peaked at #12.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2011 remix where future Beyoncé collaborator James Blake takes “Bills, Bills, Bills” apart and glues it back together:
(James Blake has never had a Hot 100 hit as lead artist, but he did participate in the 2018 Kendrick Lamar/Jay Rock/Future collab “King’s Dead,” which peaked at #21.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s They Might Be Giants’ video for their quasi-ironic 2015 nerd-rock cover of “Bills, Bills, Bills”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the a cappella version of the “Bills, Bills, Bills” pre-chorus that Doja Cat made in 2019:
(Doja Cat will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s British grime MC Aitch rapping over a “Bills, Bills, Bills” sample in his 2020 song “Triggered”:
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.