By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
WATCHING THE NEW VIDEO AND LISTENING TO FanMail, what becomes evident is that TLC have clung to their humanity while being fed through the brutal machinery of the music industry, if not life itself. The joyless military precision that distinguishes the choreography of most contemporary R&B, pop and hip-hop videos is turned on its head in the Hype Williamsdirected clip for "No Scrubs"; there's an oh-so-slight sloppiness to the dancing, a millisecond variance in the way they all spin or clap or land on the beat. It's not quite synchronized, though it clearly could be -- and it's obvious that the jaggedness is intentional, that the cold environs of the spaceship (standing in for the music industry, perhaps) is meant to be offset by human variables.
Though crammed with future hit singles, the album isn't as deeply imagined as the video: too many bland ballads ("I Miss You So Much," "Come On Down") and Timbaland-inspired tracks ("If They Knew"), and not enough Left Eye. (She's likely hoarding the goods for her long-stalled solo project.) Yet there's a telling narrative thread, unforced but powerful, that's strung through the disc. "No Scrubs" uses the materialistic language and desires of the ghetto gold digger to chastise brothers with no dreams or ambition. Contrary to popular (literal) interpretation, the song is about male character, or lack of it, not a man's ducats. (Think of the tune as spinning out of Lauryn Hill's line in "Doo Wop": " . . . still in they mama basement.") The following track, though, "I'm Good at Being Bad," is the gangsta bitch/ho unleashed in all her ravenous fury. She's straight-up when she says she wants a man who's massively hung and more massively financed. TLC snarl and spit their way through the Jam & Lewisproduced cut, ridiculing mushy sentiment in favor of the gold-card perks of a cash-fueled relationship. But "Unpretty," just a few stops down on the track list, is a cold dose of morning-after blues. It's where the trio realize the connection between the beauty standards they've been sold, the material things they've been conditioned to want, the kind of "real nigga" they've been programmed to chase, and the gnawing sense of emptiness they feel inside: "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 MAC can make/. . . Never insecure until I met you/now, I'm in stupid . . ."
While provocative, even poignant, their lyrics aren't subversive or groundbreaking; these voices are exceptional only in that they're instantly identifiable in a sea of interchangeable pop and R&B singers. TLC stand out from the crowd because they register, period. It's in their unbroken spirit, the way they spin heady pop opium out of the bullshit of daily life. But TLC's biggest weapon may be that, unlike so many heralded female performers, they haven't made the mistake of thinking that pussy only has power when it's used as a surrogate dick. Having the uncommon sense not to fall into that too-common trap makes them damn near radical.
TLC | FanMail | (LaFace/Arista)