It can be tough for a fly girl to keep herself together. Today's feminine ideal is a split personality, equal parts steely bitch and sweet sister, superfreak and misty romantic, self-centered coffee achiever and spiritualized. earth mama. Identities can get jumbled up like the discount piles at a sample sale; women can feel pulled in so many directions that they start to come apart.
This struggle is the center of TLC's imperfect but intriguing new album, Fan Mail. There's a moment six tracks in when the tension really explodes. "I'm Good At Being Bad" starts of like a Mariah Carey beach fantasy, all luminescent waves and gently clasped hands. Then a bitter hip-hop beat crushes the music's swell and the singers start snarling, spitting out obscenities. They're facing down the pampered lover but also the fool who did the coddlings. It's a standoff between the doe and the dominatrix in one woman; the tougher fighter clearly wins, but not without some cost.
It makers sense that TLC would be the girl group to address the post-feminist identity crisis, even though T-Boz, Chilli and Left-Eye probably wouldn't use that phrase. TLC's members and their male mentors designed the trio to embody the various aspects of an ideal woman. Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas is the spun- sugar ingenue, her clear voice exquisitely love struck. Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes is the tomboy, the rapper who spars happily with the fellas. Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins walks the line between these two extremes, her indelible down-low growl somehow both male and female, libertine and self-possessed. TLC's early efforts explored this range within the fairly safe context of a teen group (albeit one that promoted safe sex, by pinning condoms to its costumes). 1994's CrazySexyCool found the perfect balance, melding heartache, lust and inspiration so smoothly that all the elements merged into one seductive flow.
In the time between that album's rise and this one's release, however, TLC's tranquility frayed. Lopes had the roughest time, dealing with a very public fallout from a stormy relationship. Watkins went public with her battle against sickle-cell anemia. Thomas experienced a happier -- but still hard to negotiate -- change when she gave birth to the song of the trio's main producer and so-called Svengali, Dallas Austin. Then there was the group's money crisis, which resulted in a period of bankruptcy. The real lives of these women interfered with the harmonious image that continued to sell millions of copies of CrazySexyCool.
Fan mail takes these crises into account, if only metaphorically. In general, the sound is sharper, more aggressive; clearly, Austin and his musical partners, LA Reid and Babyface, have been feeling the heat generated by their Virginia neighbor, Timbaland. The corny Computer Age skits that frame the record, with highly processed vocal bits conjuring Cher more than Radiohead, don't work. But it doesn't matter. TLC's sexy moves are enhanced by the album's jittery rhythms, and so is their anger.
Though it has its requisite slow-dance ballads, Fan Mail mostly explores defiance, whether the mood is sarcastic, as on the fun kiss-off "No Scrubs" and Austin's misguided attempt at girl power, "Silly Ho," or fervent, as on the one Jermaine Dupri-produced track, "My Life." Lopes' rap in that defiant song, which swears loyalty to a father who pursued his own dream and to a mother who cleaned up his messes, captures the strain felt by a young woman trying to rule her own existence without wrecking it. It's one of the many songs here that delve into the intricacies of female independence, fulfilling the promise of "Creep."
The best of the ballads that strive to follow TLC's other massive hit, the morality tale "Waterfalls," also poses new challenges. The Austin-produced "Unpretty" is the protest against the beauty standard, set to an airy calypso strum; T-Boz could be at the Lilith Fair as she decries nose jobs and hair weaves. "Dear Lie," which T-Boz co-authored with Babyface, doesn't make such a clear feminist statement, but its mournful account of self-deception is as much about how people grow alienated from themselves as it is about their lies to each other.
The effort to break away from illusions, especially the gender kind, powers the most exciting music on Fan Mail. The songs that fulfill old fantasies -- like the Diane Warren-penned comfort-food snack "Come On Down" -- pale next to these more painful efforts. Fan Mail sends a fragmented message, but its contradictions are compelling. TLC sound brave, and real, as they step out of the rivers and the lakes that they're used to and into a harder current.
From Rolling Stones Magazine March 1999