Happy 20th Anniversary to TLC’s third studio album FanMail, originally released February 23, 1999.
There may have never been an album that marked the beginning of a new musical era as succinctly as TLC’s FanMail. After a four-and-a-half year lay-off, America’s craziest, sexiest, coolest, and most successful R&B group helped craft a new blueprint for how to aurally captivate, visually dazzle, and personally engage millions with a groundbreaking LP.
The dynamic trio of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas who were originally fused and later nurtured under the warmth of the Peach State, fostered an unprecedented string of hits and albums sales with their first two long players, Ooooooohhh...On the TLC Tip (1992) and CrazySexyCool (1994). Released as the fourth and final single from the multi-platinum latter album in late 1995, “Diggin’ On You” extended the hot streak for TLC as their seventh top 10 single.
Maximizing their time during their hiatus to strategically select songs that spoke directly to TLC’s maturity, the ladies turned down several songs that proved to be hits for younger recording artists looking to establish themselves. “Where My Girls At?” was passed on to fellow trio 702 as the lead single for their self-titled sophomore LP, which was released later in 1999. Likewise, “...Baby One More Time” was later used to launch the career of teenage pop sensation Britney Spears for her 1999 debut LP of the same name. Once TLC was finally primed for their third installment, their lead single was as edgy, empowering, and irresistible as any highlight of their acclaimed catalog to date.
Produced by Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, who also co-wrote the song alongside Xscape members Kandi Burruss and Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, “No Scrubs” propelled TLC toward an even bolder and more unapologetic voice of womanhood. The song’s contentious lyrics led by Chilli shot down some notoriously clichéd pickup lines of the latter half of the 20th Century with hardline rejections like “no, I don't want your number / no, I don't want to give you mine / and no, I don't want to meet you nowhere / no, I don't want none of your time.”
Once T-Boz joined in for the chorus, young women instantly had an anthem to memorize, and guys over 18 who still claimed dibs on the shotgun seat were enflamed by the not-so-subtle jabs at their so-called masculinity. “I don't want no scrubs / a scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me / hangin' out the passenger side of his best friend's ride / trying to holla at me.”
Left Eye, who had always been the major creative force behind the group’s success, contributed to “No Scrubs” by providing a brilliant verse that transitioned smoothly from a spoken word poetry style intro into the hip-hop lyrics “So, let me give you something to think about / inundate your mind with intentions to turn you out / can't forget the focus on the picture in front of me / you as clear as DVD on digital TV screens / satisfy my appetite with something spectacular / check your vernacular, and then I get back to ya.”
The overall performance showed substantial artistic growth for a group that had already scored number one hit singles and achieved multi-platinum status. Aside from stirring up a reasonable amount of new debate material for the never-ending battle of the sexes and redefining the American deadbeat, “No Scrubs” landed as TLC’s third number one single, was nominated for the GRAMMY award in the Record of the Year category, and the Hype Williams directed video won MTV’s Best Group Video award.
Reuniting with long-time collaborator Dallas Austin who wrote and produced “Silly Ho” under his pseudonym Cyptron, the ladies continued with their demonstrative approach to female independence, proclaiming “not goin' let you catch me out / you should take a lesson from me / I ain't the one to be / depending on someone else / I can run a scam / before he can.”
“I’m Good at Being Bad” helped FanMail earn a parental advisory sticker for its unedited version. Produced by the legendary tag-team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the song begins with an innocent instrumental to complement the lyrics delivered by Chilli, “As we walk hand in hand / just kickin' up sand / as the ocean laps at our feet / I'm in your arms / and all of your charms are for me.” The song picks up the pace as T-Boz and Left Eye join the fray, for their own expressions of new millennium feminism.
“Unpretty” slowed the pace down a few notches, embracing a poetic style of songwriting, while meshing Pop and Alternative Rock with the girls’ R&B roots. Across their acclaimed recording career, “Unpretty” sits atop a mountain of hits as the summit of TLC’s ability to connect with fans on a personal level. The heartfelt lyrics touched on themes of insecurity, peer pressure, and female agency. The coinciding video directed by veteran Paul Hunter effectively conveyed the same message visually and even included sign language to avoid communication barriers.
FanMail was timely for the closing of a decade and served as a remarkable proclamation for the voice of young women set to come of age in a new century. TLC used clever avenues to seize the anticipation of the approaching Y2K, with the album’s binary coded album cover and audio appearances by their computer modulated collaborator Vic-E. The ladies stuck to their brand of fun, while artistically expressing each growing pain they had encountered since their previous LP. With FanMail, TLC not only changed the look and sound of R&B at the time, they introduced a newfound depth to the genre, packaging all of it into a generous aural gift to the fans that made them the most successful American female group of the ‘90s.