Sometimes when you’re at your worst, you’re at your best.
For TLC that sentiment couldn’t be truer when during what was to be their iconic creative peak, the feisty Atlanta trio were having a series of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. The spark began, literally, when after an argument member with her NFL wide receiver boyfriend, Andre Rison, member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes threw his shoes in a bathtub, lighting them ablaze and ended up burning the house they shared to a crisp. To avoid a five-year prison stint, Lopes checked into rehab for alcoholism, while band members Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas pressed on with work on their sophomore album. When CrazySexyCool was released and began racking up hits and accolades, the celebration wouldn’t last for long as a few months later, the group had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing that their record label LaFace and their shady manager Perri “Pebbles” Reid had their hands on the royalties that the group were owed. Add to that, the ladies had tussles with each other, but they collectively came together for T-Boz, who at the time went public about her battle with sickle-cell anemia.
Though the tide was high for the members of TLC, the artistry and hit-making significance of CrazySexyCool managed to rise above the turbulent waters, as the album slowly but surely began to carve the future framework of R&B and its culture for the next generation.
As young and as restless as the members of TLC they were, CrazySexyCool was anything but complicated. On first glance, that seems a little strange to say considering the bevy of talent present on the production roster; the names Babyface, Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, Manuel Seal, Organized Noise, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Chucky Thompson, OutKast, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest‘s Phife Dawg, all jump out from the credits. Usually too many voices tend to spoil the whole conversation, but for their contributions as producers, writers and guest stars, they all come together without hitting speed bumps as they co-sign the ladies and nurture a new sound frontier for them. Still, TLC, while hanging tough with the guys, was still fully in control of the situation.
CrazySexyCool was also ambitious in its expanse as it clocks in with 16 tracks, four of them being interludes, aka the bread and butter of a 1990s tracklist. What emerges in sound is fluid and refined and is miles away from the day-glo, rambunctious, somewhat trouble-making attitude of their 1992 debut, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip. They had obviously matured, and with them taking a hold once again of writing duties, they seemed much more interested in bending, shaping and expanding their tone and opening their circle of R&B to newer risks. CrazySexyCool still dives into a crystal coolness of R&B with its silky, layered sounds, but it also at times feels more like a pop effort, with its memorable and accessible hooks. Then to flip it again, there are gobs of hip-hop where the tongue-twisting lyricals bite and give nod to how TLC Southern fries their rap snacks.
The spunky feminism displayed on their 1992 debut was also still prominent on CrazySexyCool, but the atmosphere was softer, more chilled and more pensive as the trio, who have never shied away from stepping on a soapbox, were able to be bring up even darker social ills in the midst of exercising their sexuality with even bolder assertion. Still it wasn’t all serious, as the ladies still mixed fun with a maturing edge that doesn’t come so agile these days, but for TLC they were able to glide through each stance they took without tripping on their egos. They instead played up to the album’s title with T-Boz urging the husky-voiced coolness, Chilli slinking in sexy and Left Eye bringing the crazy and spastic word plays, but they proved how interchangeable the title was for each of them, and in turn showed them as human and three-dimensional as possible.
CrazySexyCool also boasted more hit-making moments with four singles all reaching the top five. They scored their first No. 1 hit with the album’s opening track “Creep,” and it brought a new bit of lingo into the world of infidelity, as it lounged in a cool like dat jazz vibe, its video featuring TLC playfully romping around in silk pajamas as T-Boz went through a crafty dialogue of a relationship on the rocks. “Red Light Special,” the album’s second single, had them far from blushing as the steamy make-out session twined its way around a sensual guitar solo and Chilli’s yearning wails.
Even better was T-Boz and Chilli school girl crushing on the No. 5 hit, “Diggin’ On You” as Babyface’s unmistakable synth work snakesd around a summery image of Sunday afternoons, Kool-Aid and sitting in the park on a Fourth of July. The song was revamped for its music video, and it flashed with more big band diva-ness thanks to a vibrant brass section and Chilli just vocally slamming down that killer bridge.
The massive “Waterfalls” was the crux of TLC’s crossover appeal as it easily soared to No. 1 in the summer of 1995, and played into the album’s encompassing aural theme of stirring pop, R&B and hip-hop into one smooth brew. Flickers of cautionary character studies about the controversies of the illegal drug trade, unprotected sex and HIV/AIDS flowed into the soulful horn-tinged sway, while its famous cautionary chorus urged us not to rush life (“Don’t go chasing waterfalls / Please stick to rivers and the lakes that you’re used to / I know that your gonna have it your way or nothin’ at all / But I think you’re moving too fast”). Left Eye’s spiritual flow was iconic, showing how in-tune she was as a lyricist and thinker. The F. Gary Gray-directed music video for “Waterfalls” also broke ground as it was their most artistically cinematic feature to date, and the efforts made TLC finally MTV worthy as it won four moonmen at the MTV Video Music Awards, influencing a slew of videos thereafter.
While the hit singles dominated the set, CrazySexyCool cohesively surged, taking risky sound detours as it progressed away from the polished hits. Continuing to exude their sensuality with tact, they kept the red light steady going deeper into a sensual spin as they purred on the aquatic “Take Our Time” and gave a frank proposal on the New Jack bop of “Let’s Do It Again.”
A surprise entry was their rendition of Prince‘s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Though a shaky, somewhat loose at best cover, its commendable considering that during this time Prince was being mocked mercilessly for his “The Artist” persona. With TLC pulling the track from Sign O’ The Times obscurity, it reminded people how much Prince’s sound was embedded into the folds of 1990s R&B in all of its sexual and abstract funk-laced splendor.
In the midst of love making, TLC also knew how to laugh at themselves, and while sometimes their jokes bordered on crassness (the potty humor of the interlude “Sexy” comes to mind), they were much better when rabble-rousing with the opposite sex as a Jean Knight sample brought out the wit and fun word play in “Switch” while “Kick Your Game” had TLC questioning the motives of a would-be suitor who had followed Chilli to the coat rack and who had previously been seen with a “Nicole.”
For the finale, TLC opted to end on a socially reflective note with “Sumthin’ Wicked This Way Comes.” It was an ominous but aware think piece that opened with the unforgettable flow of young ATLien Andre 3000 and was anchored by the lines, “I just don’t understand the ways of the world today / Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing to live for / So I’m longing for the days of yesterday,” words that 20 years later, still feel right in the moment.
There are days that I too long for the days of yesterday, the days of the CrazySexyCool era, but I know that is an impossible feat. The trio became a duo after the tragic 2002 death of Lopes, leaving a gap in the creative pocket that TLC had opened. Though T-Boz and Chilli have tried to mind the gap together, their final album, 2002’s 3-D, had a hollow feel to it. T-Boz and Chilli have sought other endeavors and interests outside of the group, mostly in film or television, and have on a few occasions reunited musically for tribute performances and recordings. The group’s name would bubble up here and there over the next decade, mostly for nostalgic purposes, but it wasn’t until 2013 when TLC became introduced to a new generation via VH1’s biopic, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story. The flick made TV history as it garnered 4.5 million viewers and became the highest-rated film premiere in VH1’s history, as well as adding to the onslaught of 1990s nostalgia that has become pop culture’s recent go-to.
While for some the flick added to the ’90s fever that has influenced today’s pop culture frame, for the rest of us the film was a memo back to our youth and time spent digesting every line and antic of the TLC ladies. I was swept back to the day when CrazySexyCool became the first album I ever purchased (with my own money thank you very much). I remember cleaning my room and dusting furniture in my house for a good week just to get that money, and I felt quite grown when I walked into Sam Goody and put down the money for it. I was eight at the time, and it’s hilarious to me how I was more self-possessed at eight than at my 28 years now. At the time I only knew CrazySexyCool on the surface, and really only cared that the music was great to sing into my hairbrush and that TLC were the coolest chicks I’d ever seen. When I settled down to view the flick, I thought it’d be an enjoyable trip back in time with snarks and laughs here and there as TV movies usually bring, but it instead educated me and clued me into the fact that TLC may have been fractured as a group now, but their legacy was far from it.
CrazySexyCool was at the helm of that legacy and at the time of its release I didn’t realize how much it aided the next generation of sound. How it boosted the careers of Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri, making them some of the premier curators of R&B. How it revitalized Babyface’s career and allowed him to crossover into the pop mainstream, later giving us the soulful side of adult contemporary. How much the album as a whole met people that probably wouldn’t have given hip-hop threaded R&B a second glance. How much the album would sculpt what we call alt-R&B today, with artists like The Weeknd, Rochelle Jordan, Little Dragon and AlunaGeorge copping the sound and fixing it with a new set of rules. How, in a social sense, it was important for me, a little tan girl, to see and hear three Black women from Atlanta make music on their own terms, proclaim equality for the sexes without ploy, and being as unapologetically flawed and oh so carefree in their mantra.
With 11 million copies sold, two GRAMMYs and a landmark diamond certification, CrazySexyCool changed the game, shifted minds, molded sounds and taught us a new way to think, speak and to just be in the midst of life’s troubles and growing pains.