Does TLC’s ‘FanMail’ Stand the Test of Time?
Fifteen years ago on Feb. 23, 1999, TLC, the best-selling American female group of all-time, released their third album, 'FanMail.' This would be the last project featuring Chili, T-Boz and Left Eye before the latter's untimely death in 2002. Their dynamic was undeniable and they earned quite a few accolades for their achievements, but does this album stand the test of time?
If you had a cassette tape of 'CrazySexyCool' and fast-forwarded right to ‘Sex (Interlude),' you probably giggled at the group's moans and laughed along with the them, if not louder, as the punchline of the interlude was delivered. The tracks that followed were the funky, soulful and sexual ‘Take Our Time,’ ‘Switch,’ and ‘Sumthin' Wicked This Way Comes.’ That last leg of 'CrazySexyCool' was everything that helped define TLC -- irreverent, provocative, yet soulful. Upon their release of 'FanMail,' they managed to maintain all those elements, but as a group, the giddy cohesiveness in that 'CrazySexyCool' interlude was lost.
When ‘No Scrubs’ was released as the lead single to ‘FanMail,’ they were a better version of the younger artists who shared a potty joke with us four years earlier. The track was sleeker than anything they’d ever released. The flagship video would be a constant presence on TRL’s ‘Top 10’ countdown well into the end of spring. Their evolution naturally fit with what was going on in pop music at the time. Let’s not forget their career narrative would become synonymous with the VH1 franchise, ‘Behind the Music.’
They demonstrated continued talent by kicking off the third stage of their career loudly, but it could have been brilliant marketing. As women, they were strong. Not strong in the diva sense (Mariah Carey still reigned supreme then) but strong in the She-Ra sense. So expectations of ‘FanMail’ were high and they delivered. The accolades poured in (eight nominations at the 2000 Grammy Awards) and the copies flew off the shelves. With six million records sold and three Grammy wins (all in the R&B category), 'FanMail' became their second biggest-selling album after 'CrazySexyCool.'
On the 15th Anniversary of this project, it's time to celebrate the group’s third body of work.
The digitized introduction that doubles as a record in itself serves the fans with a message that’s all for them: “We've dedicated our entire album cover to any person who has ever sent us fan mail.” In 2010, the track received new life when Drake used it as an interpolation on “I Get Lonely Too.”
The futuristic sound of the album begins with ’Silly Ho.’ Dallas Austin takes the full songwriting credit on this one. The ladies offer an undeniably bad ass track. It’s R&B but southern all at the same time with its bounce -- you can't listen without knocking your head to the effort. T-Boz growls more than croons on this one, “I ain't never been that chickenhead to wake up in your bed after every club or two.” This is the single that never was.
Those guitars in the very beginning are classic. Wherever you are, if you heard those bad boys, you know what’s coming. "A scrub is a guy who thinks he's fly / And is also known as a buster / Always talkin' about what he wants / And just sits on his broke ass," Chilli sings. This record kicked off a fire-storm. ‘No Scrubs’ reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for a whole month. Plus, it inspired Sporty Thieves’ ‘No Pigeons’ and that alone is a treasure. The version of the record with Lisa’s rap never made it to the final pressing of the album. Only those who purchased the actual single had the “rap version” until the ‘Now & Forever: The Hits’ was released in 2005, but it didn’t stop the rapper and the other songwriters Kandi, Shekspere, and Tameka "Tiny" Cottle from receiving the Grammy for Best R&B Song in 2000.
‘I’m Good at Being Bad’
TLC enlisted Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for this one. It was another example of the group riding the line between soft and grit. Chilli’s smooth voice kicks things off over plucking guitars. "Sunny days, birds singin' sweet soundin' songs of love," she sings before the beat drops and the bass just funks out and the lyrics rush in. "I need a crump, tight n----, make seven figures." Definitely one of the most standout album cuts.
‘If They Knew’
Dallas Austin comes through for the production of this slow-groove “trifling-ho-anthem.” We catch glimpses of Left Eye’s more conscious tempo to her bar delivery with, "Ain't it funny how an orange and a fly / An entity upon itself, that can spread wings and fly." She raps steadier on 'If They Knew' than in her well-known rapid fire pace. Considering the sonic similarities to “Silly Ho” the album could have done without this track.
‘I Miss You So Much’
The legendary (even back then) Babyface brings forth one of the first strong ballads on “FanMail.” It’s a soft guitar-based track that screams Babyface. The lyrics are simple and crisp here: "Why did I act like you mattered? It was silly of me to believe that if I just open my heart things would come naturally." Chilli takes center stage, with no assistance from T-Boz and Chilli, while sounding perfectly in place.
This song is a crossover gem and truly stands the test of time as one of the most far-reaching songs T-Boz has written. Dallas Austin’s production really flexes with the omnipresent guitars. The song went on to be nominated for Song of the Year at the 2000 Grammy Awards but lost to Rob Thomas’ ‘Smooth.’ Serving as the second single for the album, the video features a heartbreaking sequence of a girl with an eating disorder and self-image issues. Looking back, there’s a clairvoyant element to the video with Left Eye hardly singing along and simply using sign language.
Left Eye’s rhymes are the focal point of this song as she talks about her father, “You see my father was a wise old man / Always creating a plan for me to conquer this land / He said I am what I am,” she raps. Jermaine Dupri takes the production on here, and adds a quick and easy to miss interpolation of Roy Ayers’ ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ at the very end -- the same used for Mary J. Blige’s title track from her 1994 album, ‘My Life.’
This is another track where Left Eye comes to the rescue, “Quiet storms will inform you that I've just begun / Tippin' the spot 'till it's hot if you want what I got.” Without those Left Eye bars the effort would have absolutely merged with ‘My Life,' with its similar tempo. Lisa’s lyrics are buried in the song, making it hard to remember.
‘Come On Down’
The group really wanted to go the pop route with this album by including this song written by Diane Warren. Three years earlier, Toni Braxton reluctantly recorded 'Un-Break My Heart,' a song written by the same writer of 'Come On Down,' and yielded Braxton a pop revitalization. It’s accompanied heavily by a guitar and posses a melody that gels Chili and T-Boz in an unforgettable way. Debra Killings, a constant in the TLC catalog as a backup singer, makes a production appearance on this one.
The third and final single from ‘FanMail’ came in the form of ‘Dear Lie.’ At this point in the album there’s no trace of Left Eye. The Babyface-produced track was a minor success compared to the previous two singles. The sad connotation of the song coupled with the somber video seemed like a symbolic resignation from the group.
This could have been an amazing R&B single with its balance of gumption and scorn. The hook alone is just so on point, “Real sad for me, too bad for you / That I'm so lonely and confused / I’ve gotta take it out on you.” It’s interesting that this is the only song Chilli co-wrote on and that it’s with Dallas Austin, considering their relationship history at this point.
If there’s any glimpse of the group’s sounds from prior albums, it’s on ‘Automatic.’ When T-Boz sings, “I remember when I fell for you It wasn't when I wanted to," the tempo mixed with her inflection is a reminder of 'Ain't Too Proud 2 Beg' -- aside from the futuristic vocals of the computer-generated female voice.
‘Don't Pull Out on Me Yet’
The album closes with a straight R&B ballad -- the only one featured on the project. Dallas Austin steers clear of adding his futuristic vibes on the production tip and uses horn samples to give the whole thing a classic feel. The lyrics are sex-driven and get straight to the point. "I want you to be good to me too," T-Boz sings. "Don't go too fast, make it a night that I won't forget." The song is sensual and heartfelt but fits better with the aesthetic on previous TLC albums.
‘FanMail’ fell victim to many factors. Some were prior to making the album and some once the it became the monster hit it did. Until the very last track, ‘Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet,’ there is no strong R&B ballad. That move from an R&B group, no matter how much crossover appeal they have, won't ever feel right. The other ballads ‘Unpretty,’ ‘I Miss You So Much,’ ‘Come On Down,’ and ‘Dear Lie’ all seemed to have been made for the sole purpose of crossing over into the pop lane. The group disguised this gritty R&B album with soft pop hits. That didn’t work. Even the simple fact that an album that sold 6 million records only had three visual treatments in the form of 'No Scrubs,' 'Unpretty' and 'Dear Lie' felt like they just weren't done working on everything 'FanMail' had to give.
The group’s strength as individuals, talent and dedicated fans aside, ’FanMail’ was not a game-changer by any means. Is it representative of the recorded music landscape of the time? Yes, because it was a digital and millennium-themed affair, but nostalgia only partially weighs on a musical work's lasting impression. TLC showed increasing artistic reach with their first two albums, ‘Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip' and ‘CrazySexyCool.’ With 'FanMail,' T-Boz and Chilli excelled, while Left Eye (whether willingly or not) was left to only show glimpses of her headway. Like the adage goes, "You're only as good as your weakest link."
Months after ‘FanMail’ was released, Left Eye sent the infamous ‘Challenge Letter’ to Entertainment Weekly (weeks later the final single, 'Dear Lie,' was released) proposing that all three group members make individual solo albums, package them together and let the fans decide which one was the best. Even during 'CrazySexyCool,' we saw a diminished involvement from Left Eye, but 'FanMail' was final proof of the rapper's distance from the group. It was on a new level.
Their mission to stay close to their fans (even pay tribute to them) with 'FanMail' was an admirable exterior effort, but it didn't result in a classic body of work. The group was falling apart and sadly, 'FanMail’ is the representation of their struggle at that time.