THE LOW CEILING TRAPS THE CROWD'S COLLECTIVE body heat and evaporating sweat close to the dance floor. There's little room to move in the dimly lit space, and every breath drawn is a thick one. But the black/Asian/ Latino gathering of funkdafied boys on the d-low doesn't seem to notice; the sex hanging heavily in the air distracts them with issues more pressing than humidity or overtaxed lungs. It's a blue-eyed-free zone of ruffneck/cholo beauty, and the glacial speed at which ghetto-cruising takes place is chilling all corners.

Though the head-grazing rafters create a less than ideal indoor climate, they work wonders for the Lodge's acoustics. When DJ Ben, in one of his finer moments, stretches out the keyboard intro to Da Brat's “Ghetto Love,” it's like hearing a raindrop shattering, then being looped endlessly. The house grows restless as seconds tick away, but Ben's in his own zone, impervious to the whistles and shouts of impatience. After a while, the crowd falls into near silence; heads nod slowly in unison. At exactly the right moment, Ben drops in T-Boz's signature blue-flame vocals: “I had some problems, and no one could seem to solve them . . .” The place goes wild.

It'd be two more years before T-Boz and her own group, TLC, would drop a new record of their own. Tangled in lawsuits, snagged in bankruptcy court, the trio — poster children for the raw industry deal — could have penned the old Debarge lyrics that T-Boz, in her Brat-track cameo, had effortlessly made her own. Having redefined the girl group — part Ronettes, pure hip-hop, the Supremes after the projects went bad — TLC had to sit out nearly five litigious years while pretenders to their throne (the Spice Girls, the insufferable Britney Spears, an endless barrage of anonymous black-girl groups) bit their style. But none came close to capturing the group's delicate/sturdy mixture of earthiness, street bravado and homegrrrl power.

Anyone who's forgotten just how potent that brew is need only check out the video for the single “No Scrubs,” which debuted into heavy rotation on both MTV and BET a month ago. Set on a replica of the spaceship from Michael and Janet's overblown “Scream” video, TLC's minimalist-extravagant clip is a sly parody, glossy comeback and confident reclaiming of position. While Chilli works the wind-machine and oversize swing like a

veteran of the Live! Nude! Girls! circuit (all gyrating hips and come-hither looks), Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (the Ol' Dirty Bastard of the group) clocks in with techno kung fu chops, her eyes alternately defiant and warm, then some unnerving combination of the two. T-Boz, meanwhile, melds jerky, robotic dancing with iconic Michael Jackson moves, throwing in steps lifted straight from the “Scream” video; her neon hair and elaborate makeup mark her as Japanese cyberpunk to Left Eye's warrior geisha and Chilli's classic femme.

Throughout the short, Chilli plays black folks' long-standing good-hair/long-hair fetish with a straight face. When she casually flips her flowing mane to accent the line “'Cause I'm lookin' like class,” it's not only a dissertation on the misplaced value that black folk still place on cascading locks, it's also the casually withering dismissal that Janet — desperately tossing 10 pounds of stitched horsehair — has been trying to choreograph for years. Left Eye takes that hair obsession and pushes it to an extreme, with falls and wigs twisted into sci-fi Oriental pigtail sculpture. Intercut are shots of a nonmechanized

T-Boz, clad in white miniskirt and halter and matching boots, shimmying inside a high-tech go-go cage, then playing the black-leather tomboy turning cartwheels in the background. Industry buzz before the album's release was that the girls weren't feeling each other, but what makes the video pop from your TV screen is the obvious pleasure they're taking in performing, being in each other's company.

When TLC dropped their debut album, Oooooooh . . .

on the TLC Tip
, in 1992, they looked years younger than they were but projected a world-weariness and street-savvy that belied their actual ages. Without playing the ho card, they were unabashedly sexual (“Ain't Too Proud To Beg”) while sporting still-raw wounds from past betrayals (“What About Your Friends”). Those two identity poles also grounded their sophomore album, 1994's CrazySexyCool, and flare throughout their latest release, FanMail. From the beginning the group had an energy that's hard to encapsulate. There's something androgynous about it, though it's unquestionably feminine. It's tough but full of humor. A little sad but resilient. Ghetto and multiculti. Their lyrics, while confessional, tap into universal frustrations but stay rooted in both a distinctly feminine consciousness and a radio-hook catchiness. They're survivors the way we all fantasize ourselves to be, having shrugged off victimhood but unashamed of the scars and how we got them, strong and sexy in the knowledge we've acquired, able to laugh if unwilling to forget. Real, in its many configurations. Their lyrics convey all this, but so does their singing: Chilli's sweet but strong R&B stylings; Left Eye's nasal, steely flow; T-Boz's husky rasp. That's why the homo-boys at the Lodge thrilled to the sound of T-Boz's voice; they recognized it as their own — at least one they aspire to.

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)

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