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.
Have you heard the new Beyoncé album? God damn. Motherfucker. Ridiculous. Masterfully conceived. Fun as hell. Physical. I’m about to go on vacation, so I’m writing this on the day that the album comes out, and I am currently floating off of it. It kicks ass. By the time you read this piece, there will presumably be a whole lot more in-depth analysis of the record. There will probably be a couple of online cycles of backlash and frontlash, too. I don’t care about any of that. I just want to luxuriate in this record for as long as I can.
I know I’m turning into a hopeless media cliché by becoming just one more gushing fool genuflecting before the altar of Beyoncé, and I don’t really love the idea of continually raving about this super-rich lady who’s been globally famous since she and I were both teenagers. But some things are undeniable, and Beyoncé’s supremacy is one of them. In this column, I have covered a great many artists who I love a great deal, but none of those artists are still making head-wrecking grand-stage pop music now. Beyoncé is. She’s been doing that for well over two decades. And thanks to the vagaries of timing, the day that Beyoncé released one pop masterpiece is also the day that I get to write about another of her pop masterpieces — one that topped the big Billboard chart 22 years ago.
Make no mistake: “Say My Name” is a Beyoncé record. There are four people on the cover of that single. Four members of Destiny’s Child have writing credits on the song, though the four people on the cover are not the same four people with writing credits. (More on that later, obviously.) But Beyoncé is the only person who sings lead on “Say My Name”; the other members of Destiny’s Child barely factor in. That was probably a power play on the part of Beyoncé and of her father, Destiny’s Child manager Mathew Knowles. But “Say My Name” is a perfect song, and it allows Beyoncé to do dizzying things. “Say My Name” sounded like the future in 2000, and it still somehow sounds like the future today. That’s incredible. That’s worth celebrating.
“Say My Name” is a song about relationship drama, and the song’s release involved a whole lot of a different kind of drama. Destiny’s Child were one thing when they recorded “Say My Name,” and they were a different thing when the single reached #1. So let’s get all the drama out of the way first. In December of 1999, after Destiny’s Child had already reached #1 with “Bills, Bills, Bills,” two members of the group were not happy. LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett had been friends with Beyoncé since they were all kids, and they’d been longtime members of Destiny’s Child. (Beyoncé met Roberson when they were both trying out for Girl’s Tyme in 1990 — long before Mathew Knowles took control of the group and long before they became Destiny’s Child.) But Roberson and Luckett figured that they were getting the short end of things.
Roberson and Luckett both thought that Mathew Knowles was giving way too much attention and money to Beyoncé and to Kelly Rowland, who’d moved into the Knowles house when her own family situation became too chaotic. It’s not entirely clear what Roberson and Luckett did to address that discrepancy. Some reports claim that they tried to split from Mathew Knowles and find different management, and some reports just say that they asked Mathew for more money. Either way, they found out that they were out of the group when they saw the “Say My Name” on BET.
When Roberson and Luckett saw that video, which goes for a kind of pastel-colored “Virtual Insanity” thing, they saw two different girls lip-syncing their parts. Michelle Williams was a native of Rockford, Illinois, and she’d previously been a backup singer for Monica. Farrah Franklin had grown up in Des Moines and Fresno, and she’d been one of the backup dancers in the “Bills, Bills, Bills” video. When Roberson and Luckett saw the video, with Williams and Franklin doing their parts, they realized that they were no longer members of Destiny’s Child. They filed lawsuits against Mathew Knowles, and the all the original-lineup Destiny’s Child members talked shit about one another in the press for a while.
Roberson and Luckett tried to start a new girl group called Anjel, but they broke up before releasing anything. Luckett, at least, had a nice solo-career run for a few years. (Her highest-charting solo single, 2006’s “Torn,” peaked at #31.) Meanwhile, Farrah Franklin missed a few Destiny’s Child engagements, and she was kicked out of the group within six months; I don’t think she ever sang a note on a Destiny’s Child record. The group ultimately continued as a trio.
In this whole sordid saga, Beyoncé did not come off especially well. It was Diana Ross syndrome: In pursuit of more money and fame, Beyoncé had jettisoned the old friends who helped her get rich and famous in the first place, and then she’d derided those friends. But all the drama within the Supremes never stopped anyone from thinking of Diana Ross as a pantheon-level pop star, and the same thing happened with Beyoncé. When you’ve got a classic record, the public can forgive a little light backstabbing, and “Say My Name” is a classic record.
Rewind a year or so. Rodney Jerkins, the reigning late-’90s hitmaker who’d produced chart-toppers like Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” and Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love,” had just gotten back from the UK, where he’d been working with the Spice Girls. In London, Jerkins had heard the slick herky-jerk bass-warp club genre known alternately as UK garage and two-step, and he’d loved it. After resolving to bring this music to the American mainstream, Jerkins had signed on to work with Destiny’s Child’s sophomore album The Writing’s On The Wall.
There was one problem: Beyoncé couldn’t stand the garage-influenced track that Jerkins had made. A few years later, Beyoncé told The Guardian, “There was just too much stuff going on in it. It just sounded like this… jungle. I don’t even know to this day how we wrote that song over that track.” But Beyoncé and the other members of Destiny’s Chid did write over that track, and they also recorded over it. All four members of the group have writing credits alongside Rodney Jerkins and two of his frequent collaborators, brother Fred Jerkins III and LaShawn Daniels. In fact, “Say My Name” is the last #1 hit to credit the Jerkins brothers and Daniels. LaShawn Daniels was killed in a car accident in South Carolina in 2019. He was 41.
LaShawn Daniels was the one who had the idea for the “Say My Name” lyrics. In 2019, Daniels told the Recording Academy that the song was inspired by the relationship that he was in: “I would be places, I would be at work, and if [my girlfriend] would call or hear anyone laughing, or speaking, or doing anything in the background, she’d be like, ‘Who is that?’ Then she’d be like, ‘Well, say my name then, and tell me that you love me.’” Daniels, the Jerkins brothers, and all four Destiny’s Child members had a hand in writing the song, but Beyoncé wasn’t satisfied with the end result. Beyoncé has said that “Say My Name” wasn’t even going to make the cut for the Writing’s On The Wall album.
When Rodney Jerkins listened to his “Say My Name” mix, he thought that that the music overpowered the vocals, and he didn’t want that. So Jerkins took the vocals and completely reworked the track. In that Guardian article, Beyoncé talks about the first time that she heard Jerkins’ new version of “Say My Name”: “My dad came into the studio and said, ‘Rodney’s done a new mix of that song that you hate, but you just have to take a listen to it.’ He played the mix to us, and we couldn’t even focus on anything. [Jerkins] had turned it into an amazing, timeless R&B record. It was just excellent. It was one of the best songs we ever had, one of the best he’s ever produced. It felt right from that moment on.” So “Say My Name” is actually a remix, and the world has never heard the original version. UK garage never got big in the US, which is too bad, since UK garage is great. But if we got “Say My Name” out of the deal, then we came out OK.
“Say My Name” is a curious beast in that it’s both breathtakingly complex and bone-simple. There’s so much going on musically in “Say My Name” that it’s almost hard to believe there’s a more complicated version of the song out there. Rodney Jerkins throws every trick in his arsenal at the track. Strings spiral through busily jaunty figures. Drum machines dance through syncopated stop-start patterns. Squelching funk guitars strut in, and then Jerkins chops them up almost to the point of abstraction. Jerkins throws so much else at the track: wind-chime swooshes, soft G-funk synth-wines, an electronic boiiiiing sound effect. On the breakdown, as Beyoncé murmurs 52 variations on the word “yeah,” Jerkins plays hypeman, muttering deep in the mix. (I think he stole that trick from Timbaland, but I love when producers pant all over their own beats. It’s just fun.)
But even with all those different sounds percolating away, “Say My Name” deals in a simple, relatable relationship dilemma. The song starts out almost bare — just the layered harmonies of Destiny’s Child singing that chorus over the sparkling, unreal acoustic guitars that every late-’90s R&B producer loved so much. That chorus is so memorable and hypnotic that rappers are still using it as a catchphrase, usually as something that they might say while having sex. But “Say My Name” isn’t about sex. It’s about betrayal. Beyoncé’s narrator is convinced that her significant other is cheating: “It’s hard to believe that you are at home by yourself/ When I just heard the voice, heard the voice of someone else.” We never find out whether her suspicions are founded, and it doesn’t really matter. “Say My Name” isn’t worried about truth. Instead, it’s consumed with that wounded, destabilized feeling. The paranoia is the point.
The voices of the other three Destiny’s Child members are one more texture in the “Say My Name” mix. On the pre-chorus, they get into a call-and-response with Beyoncé. On the chorus, they sometimes take the actual melody while Beyoncé sings relatively restrained melismatic runs. But for almost the entire song, Beyoncé carries everything, and her vocal performance is just astonishing. At the time, Beyoncé was one of a few R&B singers inventing a whole new form of delivery — a complex and rhythmically sophisticated cadence that moved and breathed with the track itself. There’s a real bounce in Beyoncé’s vocals; at certain points, she’s almost rapping. She sings in pauses and hiccups and clusters — sometimes letting words hang in the air, sometimes bunching them into fast and dizzy knots. While handles all these tricky little turns, Beyoncé sounds hurt and raw. Even as she foreshadows a new century when singing and rapping would blur into the same thing, Beyoncé sells the drama and grounds the song.
That drama makes a difference. There have been a million R&B songs about cheating or about being cheated on, so “Say My Name” fits into a long tradition. Maybe that’s why I’ve always subconsciously considered “Say My Name” to be a ballad even though it’s very much not that. The song works on all sorts of levels — as soap-operatic melodrama, as futuristic technological brain-warp, as club-jam singalong. “Say My Name” also went a long way toward defining Beyoncé’s public persona; many years later, she’d make an entire vastly acclaimed album where the basic premise was pretty much “I am not the one to sit around and be played.”
“Say My Name” hasn’t really aged at all. To this day, it’s the Destiny’s Child track with the most Spotify streams. (The single has gone triple platinum, and it’s racked up most of its certifications in the streaming era.) Beyoncé’s headlining performance at Coachella in 2018 — arguably the greatest and most consequential big-stage live show of this century — climaxed with a brief Destiny’s Child reunion. The group sang a few songs in that moment, but the one that got the biggest pop was easily “Say My Name.” That night, Destiny’s Child performed a slick marching-band version of “Say My Name” that reworked the track completely. All those years later, “Say My Name” was still capable of twisting into new shapes.
The version of Destiny’s Child that walked onto that Coachella stage was very different from the one who first recorded “Say My Name.” There was no LaTavia Roberson, no LeToya Luckett, no Farrah Franklin for that matter. At some point, the world completely memory-holed all the different changes in the Destiny’s Child lineup. Within a year, we all came to accept the idea that Destiny’s Child was Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle. There’s something vaguely Orwellian about that, as if we’d all been conditioned to think that Destiny’s Child was always Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle. Maybe there’s something sinister about that kind of image-manipulation, but it takes real mastery to bend the narrative to suit your needs, and Beyoncé has always been always great at that. It helped that Destiny’s Child just kept coming out with great pop records. “Say My Name” was one of those. More would follow.
The Writing’s On The Wall was platinum when the “Say My Name” single came out, and it was double platinum when the song reached #1. The album really took off after “Say My Name” hit #1. In May of 2000, “Say My Name” pushed The Writing’s On The Wall to #5 on the album chart, a new peak. Destiny’s Child followed the “Say My Name” single with another great one. “Jumpin’, Jumpin’” is a needling dance track about leaving your man at home because the club’s full of ballers with they pockets full-grown, and that song peaked at #3. (It’s a 9.) At this point, The Writing’s On The Wall is platinum eight times over.
By the time the Writing’s On The Wall album cycle died down, Destiny’s Child’s lineup was down to three members, and they didn’t waste any time in following that album. We’ll see Destiny’s Child in this column again before long. We’ll also see Kelly Rowland as a featured guest. And we will see so much more of Beyoncé, an artist who probably still hasn’t finished racking up #1 hits.