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Flashback: TLC Release ‘FanMail’ in 1999

Remembering TLC’s groundbreaking feminist tour de force, 20 years later

Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes of TLC (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes of TLC at the 1999 Video Music Awards.

Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

With their 1994 breakthrough LP, CrazySexyCool, TLC members Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes and Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas had finessed their R&B-to-pop crossover with flying colors. Hit songs like “Waterfalls” and “Creep” not only garnered the group multiple Grammy wins, but reflected a zeitgeist of sexually assertive and self-educated young women of the Nineties. Yet by the time they reentered the studio to record FanMail in 1998, TLC needed a miracle: America’s best-selling girl group had filed for bankruptcy.

Under their contract with Babyface and L.A. Reid’s label, LaFace Records, as well as management company Pebbitone (owned by Pebbles, Reid’s ex-wife), TLC was paid only 56 cents for every album they sold. When split three ways, each member only stood to gain just under 20 cents per record sale. “We have sold 10 million albums worldwide,” Chilli professed during a post-Grammys interview in 1996. “We have been in this business for five years. And we are broke as broke can be.”

Apart from the public bout with their label, T-Boz was fighting a lifelong battle with sickle-cell anemia; Chilli and Boyz II Men producer Dallas Austin became first-time parents; Left Eye had a severe run-in with the law after she burned down the house of her ex-boyfriend Andre Rison — and, much more covertly, began plotting her solo rap career. Meanwhile the American popscape had become an ecosystem powered by teens, churning out dozens upon dozens of girl and boy groups — leaving the trio, then in their late twenties, with younger blood to compete with. Backstreet Boys were ramping up the Y2K hype with their electronic-laden pop album Millennium, and Britney Spears sauced up bubblegum pop as we knew it with her smash hit, “…Baby One More Time” — a song that TLC had turned down, perhaps too hastily.

Nevertheless, instead of capitulating to the demands of the late Nineties pop machine, TLC decided to stick to their R&B roots, turning to both Austin and Babyface to create something more timelessly TLC. And while much of the first world was panicked about the impending doom of Y2K, the crew leaned into the looming techno-disaster, adapting their “New Jill Swing” to a more 808-infused hybrid sound — including a computerized vocaloid and honorary bandmate, who they fondly nicknamed Vic-E. What resulted was FanMail, a cyber-R&B masterpiece that would serve as a blueprint for a new, digitally-savvy generation of genre-defying musicians.

No song better encapsulated their future-facing transformation than the lead single “No Scrubs.” Co-written with Kandi Burruss, former member of girl group Xscape, the song started as a flippant jab at loose men who rove the streets, looking for women to hassle — but would swiftly became a millennial feminist anthem. “A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me,” sing the trio: “Hangin’ out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride/Trying to holla at me.”

“We got a Grammy for writing ‘No Scrubs,'” Burruss told Rolling Stone earlier this month. “It contributed to me getting Songwriter of the Year. I was the first woman to get Songwriter of the Year from ASCAP and ‘No Scrubs’ was part of the reason for me getting it. I couldn’t have asked for a better blessing of a song to have had in my catalog.”

“No Scrubs” was also the first song in which Chilli, who usually ceded the floor to T-Boz and Left Eye’s bad girl swagger, was able to take center stage as a vocalist — and a dissenting voice amid a culture that was all too permissive to sexual harassment. Almost right on schedule, an all-male group called Sporty Thievz led the misogynist backlash against “No Scrubs,” with their own lukewarm track, “No Pigeons.”

“We were cracking up when we heard Sporty Thieves’ [response track] ‘No Pigeons,'” Chilli told Billboard in a recent interview. “There’s so many songs that are negative towards women and you don’t hear a lot of females saying, ‘We’ve got to do an anti version of that one.’ So it’s funny that you have these guys that want to flip “No Scrubs” real quick. They can’t take the heat!”

Their 1994 breakthrough CrazySexyCool delved into the nuances of being liberated women: take their coolly, sexually dominant stance in “Red Light Special,” or their HIV-conscious megahit “Waterfalls,” which cautioned to choose your own adventure wisely — or in other words, by using a barrier method. But in 1999, Fanmail raised the bar to equally stress the need for protecting your heart: the song “Unpretty” was the brainchild of T-Boz, whose boyfriend at the time ghosted her while she was hospitalized with complications from sickle-cell anemia. A gentle, alt-rock reflection on the ways women struggle to embody an unattainable physical ideal — even Grammy-winning vocalists — “Unpretty” was adapted from her book of poems, titled Thoughts, which she penned while in and out of intensive care. “Why do I look to all these things/To keep you happy?” wrote T-Boz, “Maybe get rid of you/And then I’ll get back to me.”

The reception was greater than they ever could have imagined: Letters cascaded in from fans old and new, imparting words of support and stories of their own issues with body image. TLC would invite some of those fans to speak their truths live at the Lady of Soul Awards, where they would be honored with the Aretha Franklin Entertainer of the Year Award. Left Eye, typically accustomed to delivering hard bars, was relegated to perform “Unpretty” that night exclusively in American Sign Language — hinting at her increasing creative divergence from the band. (She barely got the chance to recoup her role in TLC in their following 2002 record, 3D, which she never finished recording; she died in a car wreck that year while on a healing retreat in Honduras.)

Twenty years following the release of their landmark album, TLC still receive fan mail to this very day: In January, it came in the form of a cover song by nerd rockers Weezer, who paid tribute to “No Scrubs” in their latest record, The Teal Album.

“When I heard it, I loved it!” Chilli told Rolling Stone last month. “It feels really good because when you’re in the studio working, you hope and pray that you make songs that have longevity. And we have, so that’s a blessing. I’m telling you, I wanna reach out to [Weezer] and try to make this performance happen!”

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