The conception and execution of TLC's new self-titled album has brought some uncomfortable realities to light.
I should preface this review and commentary by saying that I'm probably one of the biggest TLC fans alive. I know all of the songs (including unreleased cuts and demos even TLC forgot they recorded), have heard every interview, watched every performance, and can point out every inaccuracy in their now 4-year-old VH1 biopic. So, be aware that my assessments aren't coming from a shallow, "casual-listener" angle. Now that's been said...
Part One: The Review
Likes: Way Back, Joy Ride
Dislikes: Scandalous, Aye Muthafu*ka, It's Sunny, Haters
Overall: Undeserving of being self-titled, TLC falls flat and short of expectations. A sea of mediocrity with a few gems here and there.
Let's just get it out of the way: God, the universe, the spirit of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, or any other energy did TLC a solid by "inspiring" Jay-Z to drop his newest album on the same day as theirs. Their self-titled release went quietly into the night like Sam Fisher. It crept just beneath the gaze of black Twitter, which swarmed with celebratory, tea-sipping tweets about the lyrical content of Jay-Z's 4:44. This spared TLC the dragging that otherwise would have been inevitable, because this is arguably the worst album they've ever done. The 17-track deluxe LP is a product of a Kickstarter fundraiser, so for all intents and purposes, hardly anyone knows it exists yet. What little fandom I have left within me is relieved. After the initial high-hopes and fan support, followed by social media flubs, drama, and general public dissent regarding TLC's integrity, the quality of this project (or lack thereof) is an added insult.
In fate's irony, Left Eye was destined to represent the middle acronym of the group's name, as she was their creative nucleus. Want to know what happens to a cell when you remove its nucleus? Listen to TLC. Aside from 2 or 3 tracks, the album is a smorgasbord of uninspired nonevents. Its dated ditties are comprised of monotonous and lifeless music, with aimless and cliché, if not corny, lyrics. "We don't need scrubs chasing waterfalls" is one of the first "catchy," nonsensical hooks you'll hear in the opening "No Introduction," setting the lyrical tone for the rest of the record. The highlights were "Joy Ride" and the lead single, "Way Back." "Joy Ride" is an amazing, 'soul-meets-jazz' pop song with funk icing. It's a sound that's different, yet, just familiar enough for T-Boz and Chilli to bring it to life. A domineering bass holds a bright brass section, thumping electric guitars and syncopated piano chords in place, while T-Boz and Chilli's stacked harmonies fill every crevice of the lyrics. It's only the second song in their entire discography where just T-Boz and Chilli did all of the background vocals, so it is clear the intent was to make a personal connection, and it worked. Still, it can only be appreciated outside the context of its tumultuous, poorly crafted surroundings. Hearing it as the intended conclusion will leave a sour aftertaste and an overwhelming bitter-sweetness that the "Ride" is definitely over for one of the most iconic girl-groups in history. "Way Back" is a mid-tempo ode to 1990's west-coast hip-hop. It suits the ladies' voices well, and it has enough synth bass and percussive knocks to feel fresh, rather than dated. It's what you would expect from TLC, but just a tad safer in subject-matter to be construed as the lead single. It's melodic structure and "feel good" chord progression makes it a standout. It's biggest fault, however, is Snoop Dogg's featured verse. He talked about nothing for over a minute: he likes weed and women, is looking for one or both, and is on a song with TLC. If alive, I know Left Eye would have given a hot 16 bars--or even a warm 8 bar--that would've been exponentially more intriguing. Also, why couldn't the one guest spot on the record be for a female rapper? Given the platform TLC established, you'd think it would be, but I digress.
As for the bonus "deluxe" content, don't waste your time, unless you really want to hear TLC do TLC karaoke. The ladies' re-recorded a few hits in a reported attempt to own their masters (that doesn't remotely make sense, but okay). They claimed that "it sounds just the same, you can't tell the difference," but just listen to the originals. The remakes honestly serve no purpose, and the instrumentals sound like the work of a YouTube amateur.
All in all, the album isn't deserving of being self-titled or a bookend (the group says this is their final record). It's not even close to resembling what TLC was or is. If a teenager with no recollection of TLC's prime came across it, they'd perceive the group as corny and overhyped. Even if this project came from a genuine place, it won't be remembered or played 4 months from now, much less a year or more from now.
Further, the way Left Eye was "featured" was insulting. Reducing her to an interlude that's a clip from a widely-seen interview was just lazy, and inconsiderate to her legacy and the fan base. Any "T&C" or "TC" references to this particular album would be warranted from onlookers or "Haters." Quoting that song though, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas probably "don't care about that anyway." Unfortunately, this sentiment could sum up the vast majority of their listeners' feelings.
Part Deux: The Commentary-What This Era Signifies
I've had nothing but respect for T-Boz and Chilli over the years, but their inconsistent accounts and lack of professionalism during the course of executing this project has called their character and motives into question.
The primary confliction from the group was in relation to Left Eye's presence on the album. TLC initially claimed that Left Eye's unreleased raps wouldn't be featured because the style didn't fit with anything they had or wanted to do. To quote them, the raps were "too poetic." Anyone would think, "Well, could you try to make it work?" At bare minimum, for the sake of including Left Eye, she could've had her own separate track with T-Boz and Chilli doing harmonies or a hook. After using that "poetic" line for the first half of the promotion cycle, they said her family was “holding her vocals hostage.” I called bull on this, because her sister and presumed estate manager, Raina Lopes, would more than likely allow usage to keep her sister's legacy alive. How is it random rappers were given access to Left-Eye's material, but not her home group? Well, according to her representatives, TLC “failed to honor their contractual obligations to the Lopes estate.” If "T&C" couldn't follow up on a contract, I'm pretty sure they didn't set aside any of that $430,000+ they raised from Kickstarter to obtain her vocals. They were too lazy to try to find a work around.
The unprofessionalism from both T-Boz and Chilli during this era has been the most shocking; from the shifty details, to T-Boz's dismissive attitude towards fans asking "Where is my money?" when the release date arrived (originally September 2015) and there was no product. When the Kickstarter launched in January 2015, my reservation was that it was over-ambitious. How could they possibly raise money and complete an album in under 8 months? Further, they were scheduled to be on tour for 2 months. Once TLC surpassed their $150k target (which was low-balling), they flooded their donors with promises of collaborations with previous producers. They professed they were excited to give the best record they could, since they wouldn't be pressured by a label to sacrifice creativity. They waited until September to announce the project would be pushed to 2016. Then, there was an eight-month lapse in communication altogether with the donors between June of 2016 and February 2017. To quote the fictional rendering of Dionne Warwick in the web-series Got to Be Real, "We were just puzzled. Nothing was together."
When TLC was finally delivered 3 weeks ago, only 2 or 3 names were recognizable in the liner notes: most notably, Marqueze Etheridge and Debra Killings. A real "elusive chanteuse," Killings is who most people believe is Chilli in the background vocals of "Creep" and every other hit. The rest of the names are clearly amateur or up-and-coming producers, one of which is T-Boz's brother, Kayo. Mentions of chief TLC producer Dallas Austin, “No Scrubs writer Kandi Burruss and Lady Gaga (who had previously written a demo for the group with Dallas Austin) had the fans pumped, but none made an appearance. If the unsigned artist Chance The Rapper can get work with an onslaught of celebrities, how is it that TLC couldn't get just one song by Austin (A.K.A. the man who made their signature sound, and is the father of Chilli's only child)? Most die-hard fans are swearing this album was worth the 15 year wait, but this fan feels otherwise. It doesn't hold a candle to any of TLC's prior music, much less anything that has come out in 2017. Not state-of-the-art in any capacity, it doesn't sound like $400,000+ went into its conception. You have to wonder why the music quality was like it was, when people are making better in their bedrooms.
Another testament to the disorganization, mishandling and blasé approach, is how only the clean version of the album--which is missing a song--was distributed in the United States. The last I checked, TLC's reps said they were working on a resolution. Considering their batting average with statements as of late, I'm not holding my breath.
With all of this evidence and variables, it can be concluded that this era was a final cash-out or a social liquidation: a pathetic publicity stunt that manipulated the brand of TLC. A brand that once stood on authenticity, strong messages, long-lasting music and a cultural impact was turned into a punchline, where only Tionne and Rozanda are laughing. No one asked for this album; it was volunteered, which makes the end result an even bigger slap in the face. The shortcomings of 2002's 3D could be forgiven and rationalized, because they were still obligated to finish it amidst Left Eye's passing. There's no excuse here. The fans got the short end of the stick, unfortunately. No perk in the world of Kickstarter incentives can make up for an album that was meant to be the period at the end of a legacy, becoming a question mark or asterisk: TLC's legacy? TLC, legacy*