Before TLC released FanMail in 1999, they had already come a very long way. T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli started their group in early 90s, and under Pebbles’ management, they were known as young rebel girls with baggy clothes who promoted safe sex.
Despite the huge success of their debut album Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, the trio seemed to always be in trouble or in the middle on controversy. In 1994, Left Eye burned down the house of her then-boyfriend and successful American football player, Andre Rison, and the group managed to record their second album CrazySexyCool, despite the fact Lisa was absent for most of the recording time because of rehab.
That album made TLC the first girl group in history to be awarded diamond status. But then again, the very same moment TLC were given two Grammy awards in 1996, they filed for bankruptcy. It took them 5 years to release another (well, I can cleary write this now) classic album, FanMail.
T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli dedicated the album title, cover, and CD insert, to their fans, who wrote them fanmail over their career – the CD insert folded out into a large poster which featured a picture of TLC and the names of these fans.
“TLC would like to thank you for your support”, says Vic-E on the intro to the album’s title track and opener “FanMail”, the very first moment that TLC showed they had changed their soft soul-R&B sound from CrazySexyCool to a more futuristic style. As Pitchfork’s journalist mentioned in her article, “FanMail was one of the very first pop records to aestheticize the internet”.
The album continues with swag banger “Silly Ho”, where T-Boz uses her raspy voice over unusual urban hip-hop beat, then Chilli takes over the independent women anthem “No Scrubs“. It’s worth noting that there’s no rap version on the album.
The quarrels between girls and Dallas Austin (Chilli’s then-boyfriend and father of her child Tron) made Left Eye rather a featuring artist, than a complete one on this album. During and after the release of FanMail, Left Eye told the media she wasn’t allowed to fully express herself. She challenged T-Boz and Chilli to a 3-CD set that contains three solo albums, but it never happened.
“No Scrubs” was a bit of surprise as it shows a bit more clear vocals from Chilli, who since the debut release, seemed to be in the background of the group. She does much more work on FanMail, shining on the bittersweet ballad “I Miss You So Much” and the beautiful love song “Come On Down“.
he futuristic music video of “No Scrubs” was similar and inspired by “Scream” by Michael and Janet Jackson. The impact of the clip was huge, not to mention inspiring later works from “Shawty Get Loose” by Lil Mama to Ciara’s “I’m Out” featuring Nicki Minaj.
After “No Scrubs”, there’s a bipolar song called “I’m Good At Being Bad” which simply feels like a tribute to “What About” by Janet Jackson from The Velvet Rope, and also contains samples from “Love To Love You, Baby” by Donna Summer. This is probably one of the most savage track in whole TLC’s discography. T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli also show their badass-side later on the album with “If They Knew” and “Shout“.
TLC talks a lot on the album about loneliness in cyberworld. “Communication is the key to life (…) There’s over a thousand ways to communicate in our world today. And it’s a shame that we don’t connect“, says Left Eye. They also sings about self-love and accepting who you are.
“Unpretty” was written by T-Boz as a poem first, then become a huge pop song for all the people who don’t feel comfortable with themselves. The song taught (and still teaches) women to realize their worth and not give up on yourself or succumb to society expectations. In a world full of Instagram models editing their photos via Photoshop and Snapchat filters for looks that some teens literally die for, it seems like “Unpretty” is a very timeless jam.
The girls were also fighting with the price of fame and media attention on their famous lives in the flashing “My Life“. “I don’t care what you hear in the news or see who I choose to do the late night creep with”, sings T-Boz, while Left Eye delivers one of her best verses. The album closes naturally with a very sexy track “Lovesick“, the shaky “Automatic” and a bit wearisome “Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet“.
FanMail received 8 Grammy nomination, including one for Album of the Year, while Drake, Kyla, and many more artists are still recording covers or samples piece of music from this classic record. FanMail was full of everything – innovative technology, love, unhealthy relationships, heat, soul, and pop. The sound was sharper and more aggressive, but TLC always stay real and brave.
It’s almost unbelievable how FanMail and its concept was ahead of its time. It is even a bit more scary, if you think about how the groups of today like Fifth Harmony or Little Mix are not able to record a masterpiece like this. And it says a lot. Released on February 23, 1999, via LaFace/Arista, purchase TLC’s Fanmail on iTunes here, and stream it below.
Words by Julia Borowczyk