TLC’s ‘Fanmail’: A Classic That Was Ahead Of Its Time
This Saturday (February 23, 2019) will mark 20 years since TLC’s Grammy award-winning album Fan Mail was released. An ode to fans, Fanmail is the trio’s third studio album, the follow-up to their 1994 diamond-selling release CrazySexyCool. “No Scrubs” is still a huge hit today, but don’t ignore the rest of the album. Sonically and lyrically, Fanmail was way ahead of its time.
The 1999 album commences with Tionne ” T-Boz” Watkins singing, “Just like you, I get lonely too,” on the album’s title track, which sets the tone for what listeners can expect on the group’s second-biggest selling album, following their sophomore release.
Before the song starts, Fanmail‘s android voice, Vic-E, who makes several guest appearances throughout the album can be heard saying, “Welcome! We’ve dedicated our entire album cover to any person who has ever sent us fan mail. This is a journey into life, love, and the future of music…TLC would like to thank you for your support, and just like you, they get lonely too.” This was years before social media, but TLC was already directly addressing fans and making themselves more relatable.
Straight out the gate, TLC were letting their fans and listeners know that they too were human and experience isolation, but they also wanted to immediately set the record straight and let the world know that they weren’t lonely enough to be a “silly ho” for a man. Here are some of the album’s highlights:
“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 am better than a man/I always keep my game on deck,” T-Boz sings on the second verse of “Silly Ho,” which was used as a promotional single prior to the album’s release. Decades before #MeToo, they were holding their ground and refusing to take a backseat to men, and doing it with a spoonful of snark.
The Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, Kandi Burruss, and Tameka “Tiny” Cottle (now known as Tameka “Tiny” Harris) penned “No Scrubs” was Fan Mail‘s lead single with Hype Williams directing the futuristic video.”No Scrubs” earned the trio an MTV Video Music Award for best group video, beating both ‘NSync and Backstreet Boys. It became such a hit that even Yonkers rap trio Sporty Thievz decided to create a parody titled “No Pigeons,” which attempted to tell things from a male’s point of view. More recently, ’90s alt-rock band Weezer covered the song (it didn’t go over too well, but it’s the thought that counts).
“I’m Good At Being Bad”
“Sunny days/Birds singin’ sweet soundin’ songs of love/as we walk hand in hand/just kickin’ up sand/as the ocean lands at our feet/I’m in your arms/and all of your charms are for me,” Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas sweetly sings on the first verse of “I’m Good At Being Bad.” At that point, you’d think that the song was shooting for a spot on the Adult Contemporary charts next to Celine Dion. That is, until Left Eye bursts in with her verse: “I need a crunk tight n****/Makes seven figgas.”
The Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced track is the epitome of what the trio represents. The song includes Chilli’s soft and sweet delivery, but also the demands that men need to “know how to lick it and stick it”.
That type of candor was heard from the likes of women rappers such as Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, and HWA but you just didn’t hear it being sung by women, let alone R&B Pop-crossover phenomenons. Sure, SWV sang about going “downtown” and releasing tension, and Xscape talked about dudes who couldn’t hang, but neither groups sang lyrics that were as direct.
Before it was trendy to talk about mental health issues and to identify as a “feminist,” TLC championed issues like safe sex, and on “Unpretty,” they took on eating disorders and body dysmorphia. The trio even catered to hearing impaired fans, having Left Eye use sign language in the song’s video. This song, by the way, came more than a decade before Beyonce’s 2014 “Pretty Hurts”.
“Dear Lie,” penned by Babyface and T-Boz, was the album’s third single, which seemed to be about insecurities, inner demons, and/or a toxic lover. The track helped solidify the album’s underlying somber feeling, which really wasn’t apparent until the album’s latter half.
Unfortunately, the album’s end was filled with pop-crossover attempts that fell flat and were unneeded because the battle was already won with “No Scrubs,” which is still being played at school dances, 20 years later.
Although TLC’s Fan Mail didn’t garner the same success as its predecessor, it helped further signify the trio as one of the most influential and trailblazing “girl groups” of all times. And while CrazySexyCool was an album of its moment, Fanmail was a rare album that pointed towards trends that were years in the future.
Glennisha Morgan is a Detroit-bred multimedia journalist and writer. She writes about intersectionality, hip-hop, pop culture, queer issues, race, feminism, and her truth.