TLC’s ‘Fanmail’ Turns 15: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
1999 was undoubtedly the year of the bubblegum pop takeover, headed by Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys and a shipload of European imports. But it was also the year TLC sliced through it all with their third album, FanMail, which turns 15 on February 23. The LP’s electronic-meets-urban production was ingrained in futurism, and it embodied the impending Y2K era of digitization.
It’s almost genius how the album’s concept was so ahead of its time, and still resonates with the modern world we live in. From the Tumblr-obsessed teenagers to self-proclaimed addicts of Twitter and Facebook, and corporate workers frantically checking their email accounts as a mini-escape, the Internet has become embedded in our daily lives. Fifteen years prior, TLC predicted this digital domination and created a sonic experience complete with dial-up connections, missed voicemails and pre-Her computerized assistants.
FanMail was marketed as a tribute to TLC fans who sent fan mail during the group’s five-year hiatus — which was tainted by rising tensions between the girls, Chilli having a child with the album’s future executive producer Dallas Austin, an exploited bankruptcy case and Left Eye infamously setting her boyfriend’s house on fire. These issues, along with the reduction of Left Eye’s presence to sporadic eight-bar features, create an uncomfortable void that envelops the entire album. Save for songs like “Unpretty” and “I Miss You So Much,” FanMail feels tense, cold and distant — which is all reflected in the vocals, the production and the introduction of the female android Vic-E. But don’t get it confused, this almost palpable emotion is what makes this album so powerful. Today, as part of its 15th anniversary, we take a look back at an album that shattered the sonic expectations of its era.
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