TLC’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ Turns 20: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
The point of TLC‘s sophomore album, CrazySexyCool, wasn’t to reintroduce T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli as personae by way of Spice Girls, despite what Wikipedia thinks.
“A lot of our producers misunderstood us when we told them the idea – they’d do a crazy song for me, a sexy song for Chilli and a cool song for [T-Boz],” Left Eye said. “We had to explain that CrazySexyCool doesn’t just describe us individually, it describes all the parts of every woman.”
Those producers included T-Boz’s childhood friend Dallas Austin, longtime collaborator Jermaine Dupri and TLC’s own spunky resident rapper Left Eye – the only woman in that group.
Thank goodness for CrazySexyCool. On November 15, 1994, this R&B staple breezed in while male artists ruled the charts. (Boyz II Men‘s clean-cut, romantic crooning was king; the group’s lone sex song, “I’ll Make Love to You,” was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 straight weeks.) The album sold 23 million copies – the second best-selling LP worldwide, second only to Spice. And even as it turns 20, CrazySexyCool still feels so crucial. When reality TV mogul Kim Kardashian poses with her family for Vogue, readers remind her that she starred in a sex tape. When she poses nude for Paper, followers (ahem, Naya Rivera) remind her that she is a mother. Society at large still doesn’t get that every woman is, and has every right to be, more complex and complicated than even Left Eye had in mind.
“Yes, it’s me again. And, I’m back,” T-Boz says while introducing debut single “Creep,” which spent four weeks at #1 in early 1995. Like past TLC songs, “Creep” features a hip hop sample, a heavy beat and forthright sex talk.
Ultimately, though, T-Boz’s promise ends up being a ploy. Her husky voice and Chilli’s sweeter voice were more prominent. The sing-song hook was sung low, as if TLC were confessing to a chosen few. The group even traded in their oversized pacifier necklaces and denim overalls for those now-iconic, almost-unbuttoned silk pajamas. TLC actually seemed alluring — and to Left Eye, this was dangerous. She was outvoted, though she still wasn’t okay with announcing TLC’s new album with a pro-revenge cheating song.
“Instead of telling her to cheat back, why don’t we tell her to just leave?” Left Eye asked. She just wanted to do the right thing – after all, she was part of a group advocating for safe sex during its first-ever music video.
Still, to be human is to be deeply flawed and sometimes, or maybe always, irrational. The down-to-earth TLC of CrazySexyCool — remember, T-Boz was just chillin’ with her Kool-Aid — seemed to get that. Plus, with “Creep” and the hit singles that followed, moral and otherwise, the group stressed a bigger, more important lesson: relationships, of any kind, are about give and take.
Despite its title, even the breathy, blush-inducing “Red Light Special” wasn’t solely about what TLC had to offer. T-Boz gets suggestive (“I’ll let you go further / if you take the southern route”), yes, but she’s outlining her terms, promising a good time but only if she isn’t the sole one in the couple working for it – a lesson that Cosmo still has to teach to this day.
The first voice heard in CrazySexyCool doesn’t belong to TLC, but Phife of A Tribe Called Quest, shouting out to Chilli in her Lexus and T-Boz with the ill haircut, with his friend chiming in: “But Left Eye’s the dimepiece!”
Later, in another interlude, Busta Rhymes delivers a sermon about the crazy, the sexy, the cool — he must have it all. This sort of encouragement is fine, and TLC acknowledges this, with a thumping cover of Prince‘s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (albeit one with a more traditional gender perspective).
By CrazySexyCool‘s end, though, a man’s opinion of TLC feels insignificant, compared to how empowered these three women feel by their own sexuality. “Sexy (Interlude)” seems to be where things gets truly explicit, but then Chilli’s booty call ends up being the best prank ever.
As satisfying as the sensual CrazySexyCool is, the album doesn’t quite live up to its title. Months before the its release, Left Eye’s boyfriend Andre Rison‘s $2 million mansion was destroyed by a fire. Their relationship was already turbulent, though early on June 9, 1994, after discovering that he bought dozens of new sneakers without getting any for her, Left Eye took a pair to the mansion’s bathroom and lit it up. Soon thereafter, she turned herself in to Atlanta police, was charged with felony arson, released from jail on $75,000 bail and checked herself into rehab for alcohol abuse.
The only proof in CrazySexyCool that any of that happened is in itsfourth, Grammy-nominated single “Waterfalls.” Tabloid headlines weren’t the only reason why this song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks, by any means. TLC insisted to Epic Records label head L.A. Reid that they had to make a video as epic as “Thriller,” no matter how costly those 3D scanners were. Meanwhile, the song itself was a rewrite of a Paul McCartney hook telling three stories, the first two of a young drug dealer and the second about HIV/AIDs (“Three letters took him to his final resting place”), bringing statistics to life and showing that being nurturing requires strength.
Left Eye’s oft-overlooked verse in “Waterfalls” is the most vivid of them all. It’s sad yet hopeful, wise yet told in this squeaky voice that made her sound half her age, and from a woman who was written off as irrational at the time. Crazy, sexy, cool – she was all those things.
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