Over the course of three albums in the Nineties, TLC dominated pop's mainstream with emboldening, female-first singles that brightly melded R&B and hip-hop. The trio's reign lasted nearly a decade, during which they sold millions of records and scored nine Top 10 singles. Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, who joined the group in 1991, calls them "the queens of girl power."
But in 2002, rapper Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes died in a car accident, and 3D, the TLC LP released seven months later, appeared to be the group's final work. It stayed that way until June 30th, when remaining members Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins returned with a self-titled fifth album that serves, complicatedly, as both a gift to fans – who raised over $400,000 to allow the pair to record with no strings attached – and a proper farewell: The duo say this is their final studio recording.
"It's not the last of TLC, just the last TLC album," says Thomas, speaking over the phone before the first date of the group's I Love the Nineties: The Party Continues tour – a joint expedition with Naughty by Nature, Biz Markie, Montell Jordan and Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray – in Everett, Washington. "When we were around and before us, people went and bought albums," she continues. "Now numbers that we thought were failing numbers a long time ago are winning numbers. That side of the business is very different, and it's even more political now than ever. It's a headache."
Back when CDs were a standard living-room accessory, TLC were a frequent consumer selection. Hip-hop's DNA was readily apparent in their sample-heavy beats, often created by producer Dallas Austin, and Lopes' raps; their R&B element came from group backing vocals and Watkins' surprisingly low, melismatic leads. The resulting combination was shiny and supple, showing facility with decades of R&B history, from Motown groups to Prince to New Jack Swing, at a time when the genre was a fixture in the pop mainstream. As Babyface – who wrote and produced songs for TLC in addition to signing them to his label LaFace Records – put it in 2015, "there was a time period, mostly in the Nineties, when R&B was pop." TLC thrived in that space, landing four Number One singles, and their sound has trickled down through Destiny's Child, Blaque, Jojo, Keyshia Cole, Sevyn Streeter, Ariana Grande, Zendaya, Kehlani, Tory Lanez and even Ed Sheeran, who credits writers of TLC's "No Scrubs" on his recent Number One hit "Shape of You."
"There will never be anything like 'em," explains Daryl Simmons, a crack songwriter who penned several TLC tunes – along with evergreen numbers like Boyz II Men's "End of the Road" and Toni Braxton's "Another Sad Love Song" – often in collaboration with Babyface. "[TLC's sound] was hip-hop, but it wasn't hardcore hip-hop; it was such a fun sound, but it was serious," Simmons says. "[It was] one of a kind."
Thomas suggests that the "serious" side of of the group's music was instinctive. "We're very outspoken and pretty unapologetic about how we feel and the things that we say," she explains. This had a bracing effect for fans. TLC went to Number Two with "Baby-Baby-Baby," an unusual love ballad: "A girl like me, won't settle for less/I require plenty conversation with my sex." A similar don't-settle message percolates through "No Scrubs," which is like a Nineties update of Aretha Franklin's "Respect." It went to No. 1.
Jermaine Dupri, who also produced several songs for TLC, remembers seeing the impact of these songs and others like them firsthand. "They got so much fan mail about how encouraging they were for other girls," he recalls. "You're pre-Aaliyah, pre–Destiny's Child, pre-Beyoncé: Girls didn't talk about their own situations when these records came out like they talk about in today's society. [TLC] were so far ahead."
The group stayed steadfast in their commitment to incisive pop, even when market pressures pushed them away from it. "I remember that Missy Elliott had a song and L.A. [Reid, who co-founded LaFace Records] wanted TLC to do it," Simmons recalls. "The song was hot. I remember T-Boz specifically saying, 'L.A., the song's a hit, but it's not a TLC song.' That spoke volumes. They were so pro-TLC."
The duo believes there's a void for what they call "lyrical content" in pop today. In particular, TLC are worried about what Watkins dubs "the day of being promiscuous." She starts in – "It seems like the more promiscuous you are on reality TV and Instagram ..." – before Thomas sweeps in incredulously: "It's praised! They say you're winning when you're doing stuff like that!" This has been a longstanding concern for the duo; in 2014 they sniped at other (unnamed) singers, proclaiming, "It's easy to sell sex," and subsequently tussled with Rihanna on Twitter.
"We want to be seen by the little girls who don't want to do that," Watkins continues. "We're living proof that you can keep your clothes on and have a career. You don't have to take that route unless you choose to do so. People will still accept you."
TLC don't delve overly far into this topic on their new album. They preach self-love, as they have been doing since their 1992 debut, on "Perfect Girls," and attack general human cruelty on "Haters:" "Don't you ever change/People gonna say what they say/But we don't care about that anyway." "There's always somebody that is going to say something negative about you, no matter your age, color, creed, group or the accolades you have in this business," says Watkins. "You can't believe what they're saying. Those people are sad. They need love."
A separate strand of TLC history seeps into "Start a Fire" and "Scandalous," which reach back to commanding, libidinous numbers like "Baby-Baby-Baby" and "Kick Your Game." "We always flip the script: A guy wants you to freak for him; it's like, you be a freak for me," says Thomas. "That's just how we do it. We like to educate the ladies: always flip that shit."
The group sticks to roads they paved decades ago; still, there is an unavoidable difference in TLC today: the absence of Lopes. "You have to find your new normal," Watkins states. "Once you show people what that is, if they accept it, they accept it; if they don't, they don't. Lisa would want us to move forward. She lives through us, and we always keep her incorporated in some capacity. [Her death] didn't ever mean we lost our talent or our ability to sing and dance."
If the group remains resolute in their decision to leave the studio behind, those abilities will now be on display only during live performance. TLC appear comfortable resting on the durable compositions in their back catalog. "Those messages [in the old songs], which are great, will never go away," Watkins says. "And just because we're not making new songs, doesn't mean we're going to shut up."
Thomas adds, "Good luck trying to shut up TLC."