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How TLC Changed Everything

On the eve of the group's final release, a look back at how the pioneering female R&B group represented for black women everywhere.
Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas, Tionne 'T-Boz' Watkins, and Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes of TLC pose with their award for Best Video of the Year during the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards held at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas, Tionne 'T-Boz' Watkins, and Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes of TLC pose with their award for Best Video of the Year during the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards held at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

TLC, the all-black female R&B trio and the best-selling American female group ever, has always been a pioneer, spending more than two decades crafting hit tracks around the experiences of black womanhood.

The group is a rarity, a pop mega-sensation with political valence, and that may be why it feels particularly heavy that its upcoming album will also be its last. Coming after a 15-year hiatus, the self-titled TLC will be missing an obvious presence: Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, a lyrical great and the group's ace emcee, who was killed in a car accident in 2002. Yet despite the bittersweet circumstances attending the return of Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas as a duo, there's also a sense of uplift. Twenty-five years after they first bopped their way to the top of the charts in 1992—draped in baggy clothes, big hats, and lots of condoms for their new jack swing-style debut album Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip—the trio's comeback invites us to remember their guiding belief: that you, too, can liberate yourself.

I have a vivid memory of being around five or six years old and riffling through my older sister's CD collection and feeling completely rocked when I saw 1994's CrazySexyCool. It was TLC's sophomore album, and my first encounter with the group. The album's cover is its own show of bravado: The women blend with the fiery background, staring dead at the camera and almost daring you to join their album-long exploration of romance and radical individualism. While the smooth-sounding CrazySexyCool was a sonic departure from the trio's début, TLC Tip, it didn't jettison the group's clear thesis of the importance of controlling one's life. There’s "Creep," a jazz-horn groove about getting even with a philanderer by, well, philandering back; "Red Light Special," on which they croon about baby-making in a sensuously sweet kind of way; and "Waterfalls," their smash hit-turned-earnest entreaty that cautioned against drug abuse and unsafe sex.

TLC continued to experiment with new sounds, but the group's lyrics remained a constant: emotive and honest. FanMail, released in 1999, tapped into the vein of futurism so popular at the time, and the album managed to aestheticize the digital age, incorporating the stuttering noise of dial-up Internet connections and featuring vocals from Vic-E (pronounced "Vikki"), a rapping android who has her own bars on "Silly Ho." ("Why you even try your luck? / Stuck on silly shit / Boy, you know you need to quit / Ain't the one for all this / You missed out.") In any case, the members of TLC still trained their album on themes like rejecting male mediocrity ("No Scrubs") and not conforming to corrosive ideas about how a woman should look ("Unpretty"), and, in 2002, they followed with 3D, a similarly future-soul odyssey that doubled as a tribute to the late Left Eye.

Over the course of two sometimes-shaky decades—from Left Eye's time in rehab to the group's bankruptcy at the height of its success to a break-up that always seemed imminent—and four planet-stopping albums, TLC took big swings in its music. Yet even more than that, what makes the members of TLC rare among their peers is that they've always been down for the culture. Their music is an honest conversation with their fans, one that creates for black women something that white women have long enjoyed: representation, a sort that rejected the "angry black woman" and "welfare queen" clichés so common in the 1990s, while simultaneously pulling into focus the full humanity of black women. I recall my sister cutting her hair like T-Boz's and sporting big hoop earrings; she also taught me the sign language that Left Eye uses in the "Unpretty" music video, because naturally she had learned it. Indeed, in TLC's music there's never any question that black women might have a complex inner life. Of course they do. They can dig on someone all sugar-spun like, chillin' with their Kool-Aid, and—spoiler alert—also really want sex.

At the time, those notions and emotions represented nothing short of a small revolution.

It's difficult to point to musicians who have walked the tightrope between art and activism as nimbly as the members of TLC. Twenty years ago, I didn't quite grasp the weight of their music; when I heard "Hat 2 da Back," for instance, I knew it came as a pushback against haters who knocked the group's oversized pants and baseball caps, but it took me a while to understand that, more broadly, the song is also a celebration of discovering your own power. Still, even then, I knew I felt something—and their songs made art out of that gnawing feeling. So while there's certainly some melancholy in the fact that TLC might never again create new tracks, it's also an opportunity to be grateful for how very much they've already done.