TLC’s ‘FanMail’ Turns 15: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
1999 was undoubtedly the year of the bubblegum pop takeover, headed by Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys and a shipload of European imports. But it was also the year TLC sliced through it all with their third album, FanMail, which turns 15 on February 23. The LP’s electronic-meets-urban production was ingrained in futurism, and it embodied the impending Y2K era of digitization.
It’s almost genius how the album’s concept was so ahead of its time, and still resonates with the modern world we live in. From the Tumblr-obsessed teenagers to self-proclaimed addicts of Twitter and Facebook, and corporate workers frantically checking their email accounts as a mini-escape, the Internet has become embedded in our daily lives. Fifteen years prior, TLC predicted this digital domination and created a sonic experience complete with dial-up connections, missed voicemails and pre-Her computerized assistants.
FanMail was marketed as a tribute to TLC fans who sent fan mail during the group’s five-year hiatus — which was tainted by rising tensions between the girls, Chilli having a child with the album’s future executive producer Dallas Austin, an exploited bankruptcy case and Left Eye infamously setting her boyfriend’s house on fire. These issues, along with the reduction of Left Eye’s presence to sporadic eight-bar features, create an uncomfortable void that envelops the entire album. Save for songs like “Unpretty” and “I Miss You So Much,” FanMail feels tense, cold and distant — which is all reflected in the vocals, the production and the introduction of the female android Vic-E. But don’t get it confused, this almost palpable emotion is what makes this album so powerful. Today, as part of its 15th anniversary, we take a look back at an album that shattered the sonic expectations of its era.
Opening the album is the title track, wherein listeners are introduced to Vic-E. Sonic elements like T-Boz‘s famously raspy tone, Chilli’s syrupy vocal inflections and Left Eye’s mischievous swag, as well as topics about relationships that were found in their previous album CrazySexyCool, are found throughout FanMail — but they are now presented in a more mature and confident manner. The girls’ feather-light harmonies are juxtaposed with a heavy bass line and static/robotic vocal effects. The computerization of “FanMail” and the somber lyrics (“I got an email today/ I kinda thought that you forgot about me/ So I wanna hit you back to say/ Just like you, I get lonely too”) set the tone of isolated disconnection that is found throughout the album.
Who knew a casual backseat freestyle would turn into one of the most popular songs of all time? Back in May, singer-songwriter Kandi told Idolator that she never thought “No Scrubs” would become such a smash. But from its famous opening piano notes and futuristic video, the song was bound to become a hit. The relatable theme of deadbeat men disrespecting women is still present to this day — from Keri Hilson‘s 2008 hit “Turnin Me On” to Nicki Minaj‘s most recent fire-starter “Lookin Ass N*gga.” During a musical era where pop hits became extinct in a matter of months, it’s astounding that “No Scrubs” still holds strong 15 years later. But the crux of the certified platinum, Grammy-winning signature song is Left Eye’s exceptional rap verse, and it is astoundingly not included in the final CD version.
There is no ignoring the noticeable absence of Left Eye on the album, and the only song where she’s able to fully shine is the rough and tough “I’m Good At Being Bad.” This raw track twists the theme of male dominance and places it in the hands of TLC — where they expect you to “know how to lick it and stick it.” After opening with a tongue-in-cheek, En Vogue-esque ballad, the song quickly jumps into a thumping, raucous and expletive-spitting joyride: “I need a crunk tight n*gga/Makes seven figgas/Laced with the platinum/Not the silver shit n*gga.”
The album then takes a major shift with its brightest gem — “Unpretty.” T-Boz used one of her poems as inspiration for the song, which was strengthened by the beautifully lilting guitar melody. The song taught women to realize their worth and that fabricated beauty created by the media doesn’t matter — it’s all about what is on the inside. It seems cheesy at first glance, but the message matches the power of 1995’s “Waterfalls” as it exposes the truth about society and its unattainable expectations. TLC has always been about uplifting women, but the fearlessness of “Unpretty” propelled them to iconic status.
Fiery “Fuck you!” responses to critics’ rumors about TLC, like the defiant “My Life” and the repressive-themed “Shout” were bound to show up on FanMail. But the most surprising cut on the album is the third and final single — “Dear Lie.” The other throwaway ballads like “I Miss You So Much” and “Don’t Pull Out On Me Yet” are bland and forgettable, but this song takes more of a risk. The usually tough tomboys (especially T-Boz, who co-wrote the song) show off their more vulnerable side in the Babyface-produced tune. T-Boz’s voice is put at the forefront, exposing her delicate, cracked tone as if she had been crying. Her unguarded approach makes the lyrical theme of self-deprecation and feelings of alienation painfully honest.
TLC’s FanMail did exceptionally well on the charts — it became certified 6x platinum and won three Grammys including Best R&B Album. But culturally, it didn’t stick as hard in the minds of pop fanatics the way Britney Spears‘ …Baby One More Time, Destiny’s Child‘s The Writing’s On The Wall or even their own past albums did.
But the once-foreign futuristic and haunting production of this album has provided the foundation for sub-genres like PBR&B to thrive, inspiring artists like Miguel, Frank Ocean, AlunaGeorge, The Weeknd, BANKS, Tinashe and a handful of others. Even Drake credits the girl group as a sonic influence, putting his own spin on title track “FanMail” back in 2010. The album should be commended for setting a musical precedent based on combining synthetic sonics with moody themes of loneliness, and its impact is just beginning to peek through R&B and pop. Pushing all the internal and public drama aside, FanMail was the boldest gift the best-selling female group of all time could ever give us.