When Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins announced the Kickstarter campaign to fund their final album two years ago, many fans questioned their decision to make a new TLC record without the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who perished in a car crash in 2002. After all, the trio was one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, thriving on the chemistry of its members’ distinct personalities. Would they be as original or as interesting without Left Eye’s outspokenness, charisma or eccentricity?
Upon hearing TLC’s new, self-titled album, the answer seems to be no. What made them so cool in the ‘90s and early ‘00s was that they were saying things no other girl group — and few mainstream pop acts, really — had before. While their contemporaries were singing about broken hearts, they warned women not to waste their time on dudes who can’t take care of themselves, let alone a partner, on “Scrubs.” This was long before the terms “fuckboy” and “manchild” had entered the popular lexicon. And when tabloids viciously came after celebrities who didn’t meet the era’s stringent standards of thinness, TLC used “Unpretty” to encourage us to love ourselves in the face of this toxic mass-media messaging.
At the time, the ideas behind TLC’s songs went against the grain. But with their new album, T-Boz and Chilli fall short of the sort of spot-on, progressive observations they made twenty years ago. Instead, TLC settles for platitudes, rehashing the concepts of the group’s biggest songs in less interesting ways. “Perfect Girls” and “Haters,” for instance, focus on body image much like “Unpretty.” But sentiments like “perfect girls ain’t real” and “haters gonna hate” have been repeated ad nauseum since “Unpretty’s” release. It’s a shame TLC didn’t have much to add to the conversation 18 years later.
At a time of mass political resistance, it’s also a bit odd that TLC chose to record “American Gold,” a song full of patriotic sentiments that call to mind the red-white-and-blue cliches of the Bush era. But given Chilli and T-Boz’s politically apathetic comments on their recent press tour, it’s also not surprising — though still disappointing — that they didn’t have anything deeper to say. These comments and TLC’s bland new album are working in tandem to alienate a big portion of the group’s core fan base: The young people who were first exposed to feminist ideas through their music and are in their twenties and thirties now.
TLC lacks anthemic bangers to make up for these gaffes. “Way Back” featuring Snoop Dogg is groovy and nostalgic, but the track isn’t memorable enough to merit a second, extended version on the tracklist. And the album’s sexy song, “Scandalous,” comes off as too skittish and juvenile to be believable for two artists of this age and experience.
TLC doesn’t take any creative risks and, in doing so, ends up lukewarm and average — two words that would have never been used to describe TLC in their heyday. Perhaps the group could have bowed out more gracefully — and left its legacy untainted — without attempting to force this unnecessary sequel.