Arson, life-long illness, bankruptcy, untimely death—TLC’s behind-the-scenes story contains enough drama to power at least three seasons of Empire. But amidst all the tabloid headlines, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes also innovated an empowering blend of R&B, hip-hop and soul that paved the way for everyone from Destiny’s Child to Nicki Minaj.
Indeed, TLC commanded attention from the moment ever they burst onto the scene sporting condoms on their brightly colored clothing in 1992 with Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip. But 1994’s more soulful sophomore CrazySexyCool proved they had substance to their distinctive style, while 1999’s futuristic concept album FanMail was so far ahead of its time it still sounds remarkably fresh 18 years on. Who knows what else they would have achieved had Lopes not tragically been killed in a car accident in Honduras in 2002?
Of course, the TLC story didn’t completely end there. There’s been an ill-advised talent show to find a Left Eye replacement, a sporadic run of singles, and now—with a little help from Kickstarter—T-Boz and Chilli have recorded a brand new album. The belated, self-titled follow-up (complete with garish cover art that appears to have been designed in two minutes on Microsoft Paint) to 2002’s 3D is out today. Here are 10 songs proving TLC remains the urban girl band to beat.
Several years before Christina Aguilera told everyone they were beautiful, and over a decade before Beyoncé claimed that pretty hurts, TLC tackled the important issue of body image in much less sledgehammer style on the contrasting follow-up to “No Scrubs.” Addressing the unrealistic beauty standards that women are expected to meet (“you can buy your hair if it won’t grow / you can fix your nose if he says so / you can buy all the makeup that M.A.C. can make”), the melodic “Unpretty” displayed a vulnerability which had largely been absent from their previous man-eating, super-confident fare. Also featuring T-Boz at her huskiest and a searing electric guitar solo, the classy “Unpretty” deservedly became the group’s fourth and final U.S. No. 1.
“I’m Good at Being Bad” starts out as a gentle acoustic ditty in which T-Boz coos about sunny days, sweet singing birds and walking hand in hand at the beach. But just when you thought TLC had suddenly gone all Hallmark Channel movie, the schizophrenic track bursts into a swaggering slice of harder-edged R&B so unashamedly filthy it would even make 2 Live Crew proud. It then reverts to mushy mode, albeit with a blindingly obvious double entendre (“Sorry I turned you out / I guess I didn’t know that a man could be so soft”) before upping the raunchiness even further with a sample of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” It’s all utterly ridiculous, of course, but TLC have never sounded like they’re having more fun.
No other song committed to the futuristic concept of FanMail more than “Silly Ho.” The taster track was produced by Cyptron—the artificial intelligence alter-ego of Dallas Austin—and substituted an otherwise engaged Left Eye for a piece of voice generation software named Vic-E. Swamped with a rhythmic array of mechanical bleeps and buzzes, it also sounds like it was recorded during a particularly productive day at a robot factory. “Silly Ho” may therefore not be the most melodic TLC number, but it’s undoubtedly one of their most sonically adventurous, nestling somewhere between the twitchy innovation of early Timbaland and the cyber stylings of Daft Punk.
“Girl Talk” first hit the airwaves less than five months after Lisa Lopes’s tragic death. Perhaps it was the slightly TMI lyrics (“And when you finally get your blood flowin’ / It be lookin’ like a pinky with a glove on it”). Perhaps it was the slightly jerky production which scared off pop radio. But whereas TLC’s previous lead singles had all hit the Top 10 with ease, 3D’s “Girl Talk” stalled at a lowly No. 28. Although it doesn’t quite hit the heights of their imperial phase, this typically feisty response to the scrubs who overestimate their prowess in the bedroom certainly deserved better. Indeed, wisely ignoring the temptation to give Left Eye a mawkish tribute, “Girl Talk” instead showcases the rapper at her mischievous best, backed by a punchy mix of juddering synths and swaggering beats.
CrazySexyCool saw TLC inject a new lease of life into two bona fide soul classics. First, they became one of the few acts to match a peak-era Prince original on the steamy synth-funk of “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” And secondly, they borrowed the iconic guitar riff from Jean Knight’s ‘70s Stax classic, “Mr. Big Stuff,” to produce a brand new and equally sassy kiss-off, “Switch.” Whereas Knight directs her wrath at the player who’s never gonna get her love, TLC take aim at the jealous boyfriend who’s trying to quash their free spirit. It’s one of the most vivacious tracks in the group’s canon, thanks to both Jermaine Dupri’s bouncy production and an effervescent rap from Left Eye which references everything from the Sugarhill Gang (“Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn”) to Speedy Gonzales.
Whereas TLC had previously always been ahead of the curve, 3D found them playing catch-up. Producers Rodney Jerkins, Timbaland and The Neptunes had already created dozens of hits between them for everyone from ‘N Sync to Spice Girls by the time they finally came aboard the TLC ship, and their underwhelming contributions screamed, “Will this do?” But T-Boz and Chilli proved they could still work magic when they teamed up with long-time collaborator Dallas Austin. A refreshing departure from their signature R&B sound, “Damaged” is a convincing attempt to muscle in on the emotionally-charged pop-rock that Pink had taken to the top of the U.S. Hot 100 just several months previously. Sadly, excluding their recent J. Cole feature, it was also the last time they would ever grace the same chart.
TLC often possessed an uncanny ability to spot and showcase new talent on the cusp of great things. They were the first act to recognize the hit-making potential of Kandi Burruss and Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, a songwriting duo who essentially dominated R&B at the turn of the century. They were also one of the first to utilize the exuberant and rhythmic lyrical flow of André 3000, who had only just announced his arrival with Outkast’s debut album that same year. Produced by Dirty South collective Organized Noize, the brooding “Sumthin’ Wicked This Way Comes” boasted a killer rap from the then 19-year-old tackling everything from gang-related violence to the commercial aspirations of a certain King of Pop. It was the ideal way to close an album as purposeful yet playful as CrazySexyCool.
Accompanied by a video that made silky pajamas the must-have fashion item of late 1994, “Creep” deservedly elevated TLC into the realm of superstars. Sampling both funk maestro Rick James and Jamaican toaster Shinehead, the brassy R&B jam gave the girls their first U.S. No.1 hit, a Grammy award and set CrazySexyCool on its path to diamond-selling status. Incredibly, the track was very nearly sabotaged by Left Eye, who as a staunch safe sex advocate, strongly objected to its apparent celebration of infidelity. Eventually she relented, and the rest is TLC history.
Reportedly the first ever U.S. No. 1 to reference the AIDS crisis, “Waterfalls” cemented TLC’s reputation as the most socially-conscious girl group of their generation, and perhaps of all time. In other hands, the seven-week chart topper could have veered into preachy moralizing. But the trio was way too smart and streetwise to fall into such a trap. With its matter-of-fact, poetic wordplay (“Three letters took him to his final resting place”) and a subtle, yet hard-hitting and award-winning video, the group delivered their message like a sermon. Its timeless production—all gentle horns, slinky guitars and smooth hip-hop beats—only added to its sense of class.
After a four-year absence in which the TLC story only became even more turbulent, the group had to come back with something mightily impressive to reclaim their throne. They did, and then some. Backed by a suitably futuristic promo, “No Scrubs” didn’t sound like anything else circa spring 1999, and ushered in a wave of girl power anthems putting deadbeat men in their place (see: Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” and Pink’s “There You Go,” both of which borrowed that lyrical theme and harpsichord hook). Since its release, “No Scrubs” has inspired a hit answer track (Sporty Thievz’ “No Pigeons”) a hit tropical house cover (Le Youth’s “Dance With Me”) and inadvertently contributed to Ed Sheeran’s unfathomable world domination. Also boasting Left Eye’s most quotable and impossibly addictive rhymes—which were bizarrely left off parent album FanMail—it’s little wonder that “No Scrubs” has left such a lasting legacy.