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Apple Music

Kanye West’s ‘ye’ Is Mystifying– For Better Or Worse

Ye is a haze of puckish and juvenile beliefs and a haphazardly put together sonic structure.

Kanye West broadcasted the "new album" signal late Thursday night (May 31). WAV Media would be the ferryman bringing fans to Wyoming, through Gorilla Glass screens and iPhone stereos. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, I downloaded the application, wary of the company’s small Twitter following.

Turning it on, signing up, then logging in, I was greeted to a sight out of Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers — a sea of nameless, vibrant souls moving in unison to an exultant Kanye record, unheard, and unflinching. Celebrities, tastemakers, and, writers of any publication that Kanye felt he could sway with airfare flew to catch the livestream premiere of Kanye’s new album, ye in the wee hours of Friday morning.

The public’s umbrage that was birthed by Kanye's ignorance and circus-like political antics prior to the release of the project seemingly dissipated into thin air. Over the course of the next hour, I watched the crowd intently; 2 Chainz, Teyana Taylor, and a few other paragons trying their hardest to appear jubilant as ye played.

Since then, I’ve been flipping it forward and backward, searching for the bread crumbs to bridge together autonomous ideas. I’ve come to the conclusion that ye is a thorny, shambolic mix of ideas that don’t completely gel together like he believed they would. It’s a haze of puckish and juvenile beliefs and a haphazardly put together sonic structure.

For starters, we didn’t know the album was named ye until after it dropped. Kim Kardashian-West revealed that the cover for the album was shot on the way to the super-secret listening session. Also, the title was rumored to initially be LOVE EVERYONEye appeared to be a last-minute resolution.

This confusing mess only strengthens the delusion of what’s going on with the album, the (whether purposeful or not) disorientating mess masquerading as a united release. But when it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s not suddenly, a swan.

Ye is a character study of a middle-aged man who, both knowingly and unknowingly, admits to his flaws and, through stream of consciousness-like raps, acknowledges that which he does not understand. While all of this is happening, the absence of more than surface layer lyricism reveals even more about Ye then the album does itself. But that’s the good nature of Mr. West; he makes everything easy to see, whether he realizes it or not. And connecting the dots is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

Ye is eldritch- point blank. The album’s opening lines “I thought about killing you,” meant to be avant-garde (later confirmed by him pondering if the “cool” thing to do would be to say something that counterbalances the phrase’s darkness) are repeated a near endless amount of times, looped as if some grand valiant statement were being made. Then it gets to the one of the more prevalent themes that runs through the course of the album which is mental health, for better or worse.

“Yikes” starts off with a list of Mad Lib adjectives and menial observations, making clear the anxiety that Yeezy seems to deal with before breaking into an effervescent Ye track that wouldn’t sound out of place on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But for as loud and explosive as it is, it comes across as pyrrhic— like the majority of the energy went into the shock factor of the anxiety. He even yells senseless nothings toward the end, I’m guessing as an ad-lib of sorts, that have little to no impact.

Ye is a haze of puckish and juvenile beliefs and a haphazardly put together sonic structure.

Without any segues, ye often switches subjects at the snap of a finger — sometimes in the midst of songs. He starts the album on an introspective kick — then he jumps into the rockiness of his idealistic marriage to Kim Kardashian. “No Mistakes” bridges this gap, with Ye reflecting on his growing frailty both physically and mentally (he references the grey strands in his beard) while the chorus apologizes to Kim for the stuff he’s put her through — I use stuff in place of a certain, less than honorable term because, boy, has he subjected Kim to some filth.

“Wouldn’t Leave” is about as Kanye of an apology as Kim will ever receive publicly. On it, he reflects on his ill-minded quip about slavery being a choice. As absurd as it sounded to the public, Kim, whose career has been built off of the perception of the public, is the one who had to break it to him that he’s damaging her brand as well as his. But of course, we’d never see those conversations public. So Ye gives us his side of their talks which, by the somber production and PARTYNEXTDOOR ‘s over-the-top vocals, must have been pretty serious.

When he exclaims her fear of him “losing it all” for the both of them, echoes of her anguish can be felt through his voice. But through it, the sincerity becomes questionable. His tone on the chorus, explaining how he told his wife that she could leave him but she wouldn’t, sounds snarky, matter-of-factly even.

Perhaps what’s most astounding about it, aside from the zoned-out vibe of it, is the complete absence of the political Ye that’s been a Trump supporter for the better of two years. Ye first endorsed the commander-in-chief in a rant at a Saint Pablo Tour in San Jose back in 2016. Soon after, he posed for a photo op at the Trump Towers, manifesting some serious negative energy from his community of fans.

 We were misled into thinking that the inquisitive rapper who questioned his beliefs would explain himself — the album just proves that Ye, still, doesn’t know the politics he was anxious to understand.

He recently went full fanatic with his support, posting a picture in the "Make America Great Again" hat and seemingly aligning himself with the man at the helm of much of what’s wrong with America. The timing was impeccable. Kanye's new album had to reference it. The closest we got? A tongue-in-cheek reference to his slavery quote about it being a “choice,” which, even after listening to the album, seems random.

Of course, at seven tracks, it’s concise, to a fault even. But we get the full range of veteran Kanye here, conditioned to the game, yet still prone to the same mistakes. We were misled into thinking that the inquisitive rapper who questioned his beliefs would explain himself — the album just proves that Ye, still, doesn’t know the politics he was anxious to understand.

If there’s one, unexplored takeaway from the project, is that Kanye's a big picture guy now, much like rap’s new age prospects. His production is as dauntless and peppy as ever — it’s the message that has changed. It’s more wide and obtuse, not meant to be picked apart and analyzed. And there are no hidden strings…it’s just flat in front of you.

“Violent Crimes” is plain face talk about the fear Ye experiences when he thinks about his daughter North growing into a woman. In plain speak, Ye reflects on his own dealings with women who he didn’t believe to be worth the time of the day and how that’s changed since he now has a daughter. As problematic as it is, we read it for face value, because, that’s all there is to it. No intelligent commentary about the jacked-up connotations that he, along with the many rappers before him who have echoed the same sentiment, has brought to the table.

It's akin to the cringeworthy scene in Atlanta (Robbin Season) where a woman of color confronts a white woman for having a black boyfriend. While this conversation is absolutely necessary, it’s been treaded a near limitless amount of times — without bringing new context to the situation, the conversation is meaningless. Because of this, the idea of respecting women is extracted from the song, but not read at more than the surface level (side bar: you should always respect women).

Ye's sporadic nature is at odds with its concise appearance. For it to be a Kanye album, we expect a narrative that can be extrapolated from the music — not implicitly stated, but present through the concepts presented throughout the songs.

Graduation chronicled the maturity of Ye as a celebrity and adjusting to the tenants of fame, 808s and Heartbreak reveled in turmoil and despair that reflected Kanye's darkest period in his life. Ye may reach for making sense of mental illness, but it jumps randomly to other subjects without any warning. We spend equal amounts of time analyzing his wife’s reception and their rocky marriage as much as we do appreciating his newfound appreciation for women. Somewhere in there, he analyzes his own mistakes. If it sounds longer than seven songs, it can feel like it — even if a few cuts have one verse and last less than three minutes.

Daytona made the most use of its concise structure, while ye feels restrained by it. There’s some hefty ideas here that could have been fleshed out into entire albums. Admittedly, I came into Ye looking to learn more about the inquisitive Ye in “Ye Vs. The People.”

He exposed himself as less than the deity he believes himself to be. T.I.’s conversation on The Breakfast Club painted the track as a throwaway that wouldn't make the album. Due to its hefty subject matter, I can see why. On a thematic level, it would have made more sense due to him bleeding himself dry emotionally.

The end result — a messy journal filled with Kanye’s incessant scrawls, exposing the aspects of his personality that need the most tuning — was the same, anyway.

The brief flashes of sagacity that permeate the album’s spine come in the introduction, and a few guest contributions that align in such a way that they burst through the emptiness that Kanye creates both knowingly and unknowingly.

But the musical brilliance that comprised seven of the eight albums in his discography (sorry Ye, The Life of Pablo didn’t quite meet the mark) appears to be waning with age. There’s a good album somewhere in the scraps of what we’ve gotten and what was left on the cutting room floor, but the expansive sound and exuberant palette of emotions that he tries to portray fall flat. Maybe, next time, Kanye should make a longer album. That’s probably the first time in history that anyone has ever said that.

Trey Alston is a Virginia-based journalist that loves the raw energy of hip-hop. When he's not writing editorials across the web, you can find him on SoundCloud searching for the next best thing. Follow him on Twitter at @treyals.

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Solange's ‘When I Get Home’ Is A Reminder That Black Stories Don’t Have To Be Burdensome

Solange’s critically acclaimed A Seat At The Table concluded with “Closing: The Chosen Ones” and on it, Master P proclaimed, “We come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty.” It was an optimistic message to end a project reflecting on the burdens that African Americans carry because of white supremacy. On her follow-up, When I Get Home, Solange is in alignment with Master P’s focus on the glory. She shifts her storytelling to a black experience that isn’t troubled by the traumas caused by whiteness.

Picking up where the last album ended, Solange signals her mood change on When I Get Home’s opening track, “Things I Imagined.” On the final verse, she repeats in soothing harmonies that she’s “taking on the light.” In the 18 tracks ahead, she does so by illuminating and crowning the beauty of Houston, her hometown, in a way she hasn’t before in her art.

The singer spoke on reconnecting with Houston’s Third Ward and surrounding parts of the city and state to make this album during a screening event attended by VIBE’s Desire Thompson. “Certain things that might've been mundane to me visually started to really enrich me and enrich my spirit,” she said. Solange has lived in Idaho, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New York, and currently New Orleans, yet there is nothing like the thrills her hometown offers her. “I think [that] just growing up in Texas is such a spirited place, any given time of day you can see and experience something that's so unique and so grounded in our culture here.”

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“When I Get Home” the film coming out tonight at 4pm PT/7pm ET on @applemusic and i couldn’t be more proud ! Link in the bio 🖤🖤 y’all so damn much!

A post shared by @ saintrecords on Mar 1, 2019 at 1:50pm PST

Through music and film, Solange offers another narrative of black Southern culture that’s much more than the usual themes of slavery, lynchings and segregation. It’s a celebration of heritage that has existed, before these interruptions, and continues to thrive today. Actress Lynn Whitfield reminds audiences that black storytelling doesn’t have to exist solely be painful in an episode of Netflix’s Strong Black Lead podcast.

“There are dynamics of families and riches...and traditions of black family that have not a damn thing to do with white people, racism, slavery or anybody else,” Whitfield said. “Some of our problems are just our own problems. Some of our complexity is just ours. And I want to own that,” she continued.

Solange widens those possibilities with the experimental and collaborative When I Get Home. The singer offers 19 nostalgic dreamy jazz-focused meditations, propelled by psychedelic synths and chopped and screwed beats. It feels like the soundtrack to a joy ride at night with Solange in the driver’s seat guiding us around Houston. The accompanying movie invokes imagery of black cowboys, rodeos, 90s hairstyles, Nokia cell phones, Houston architecture and afro-futurist treatments such as 3D animations and surrealist fantasies. Solange also used BlackPlanet, the black-focused online community that predates the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram era, to tease the album before releasing on March 1.

Solange’s album arrived at the end of Black History Month and the beginning of Women’s History Month. Whether intentional or coincidental, it’s black women who narrate the project. The interludes sample media footage of black women poets, artists, actresses and spiritual gurus. And the interludes are where so much of the experimentation happens on the album. “S McGregor (interlude)” features the voices of Solange’s hometown heroes Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad over piano keys and a haunting chopped and screwed vocal. According to her mother, Tina Knowles, the song title is named after the street where Allen and Rashad’s father lived. On “Nothing Without Intention” Solange lays down another hazy chopped and screwed beat, and in the final seconds we hear the Goddess Lula Belle state “do nothing without intention,” which is borrowed from her YouTube video, "Florida Water For Cleansing and Clearing.” And the words just seem to stick with you.

By this point of the album, it’s clear Solange’s intentions for this project is to explore her creative range. The album’s experimentation is credited to her love for Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through A Secret Life of Plants. Solange was also influenced by Joni Mitchell, Missy Elliot, The Sun Ra Arkestra, and Aaliyah, as outlined in the New York Times last October. Solange won’t be contained and let it be known on “Can I Hold the Mic,” which starts off with an interview clip of Princess and Diamond of Crime Mob. Solo then blends in a spoken word.

“I can't be a singular expression of myself, there's too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many…” Solange proclaims over zig-zagging chords.

Solange gives us those varying parts of herself throughout the album. Sometimes she’s free-spirited like on the all-star “Almeda” (a road in Houston), produced by Pharrell and featuring The-Dream, Metro Boomin, and Playboi Carti. “Brown skin, brown face/Brown leather, brown sugar,” Solange chants on the verses. Solange also makes another reference to Florida Water, a cologne used for cleansing rituals by Santeria and West African Vodun practitioners. The track invokes imagery of the height of gatherings, where black people can safely let down their guards and ease into bliss. The hardcore drum and bass and playful ad-libbing make this a celebratory anthem that’s speaker rattling hip-hop at its core. When I Get Home has hip-hop all over it, with keyboards from Tyler, the Creator on “Down With the Clique”; the Metro Boomin-produced “Stay Flo”; a Gucci Mane feature on “My Skin My Logo”; and fellow Houstonian, Scarface on “(Not Screwed) Interlude.”

There are moments when her sensual side breaks through, especially on the groovy “Way to the Show.” Her feathery vocals beckon a person she deeply desires, while she makes a reference to Houston’s eclectic car culture. “Call me, even on the way to the show/Way to the show, candy paint down to the floor.” Singer Cassie provides angelic background vocals. On the velvety “Jerrod” she continues panting for physical contact. “Come and say the word and you know you gon' hit it,” she sings, giving the green light.

When she takes us to an introspective space, her vocals are on full display as she exercises hearty rips and runs. For instance, there’s the woozy, “Dreams,” reminding listeners to remain steadfast in chasing them. (“Dreams, they come a long way, not today”). On the soul-stirring “Time (Is),” Solange reunites with Sampha to be in conversation with her fears. She pushes past them by leaping into action. “But the way to do it/Just (Yay)/Do us just/ Then you’ll know/ Go.”

The fear of releasing a body of work that’s true to her current creative moods could have been crippling for Solange, especially when following up on a heralded project like A Seat at The Table. When an artist returns with an album that’s experimental compared to its predecessor, its reception could be divided, or worse, written off completely. Recent examples of this being done successfully include Kendrick Lamar’s transition from the Compton-centered good kid, m.A.A.d city to the jazz and funk-laden To Pimp a Butterfly, or Rihanna going from her usual pop bangers on Unapologetic to the vibey Anti. But there are instances when artists don’t receive the same love for switching up, such as Anderson .Paak’s move from the soulful Malibu to a more hip-hop driven Oxnard, or A$AP Rocky’s transition from a more favorable AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP to less trendy sounds on Testing.

But Solange chooses to show up uninhibited anyway. Although she’s taken some risks sonically by calling on jazz fusion, she modernizes it by blending hip-hop soundscapes, especially by threading in the influences of DJ Screw, who defined the sounds of her former stomping grounds and mainstream hip-hop.

Solange returning to her roots for inspiration can easily be tied to “Sankofa,” a word from the Akan people of Ghana that means “go back and fetch.” “It expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress,” Sankofa.org, a social justice organization founded by Harry Belafonte, writes. Solange’s When I Get Home does just that. She achieves creative evolution and the progression of black storytelling through music. And while doing so, she proudly points back to her Houston origins by sprinkling in numerous layers, references and clues. If you know, you know. If you don’t, prepare to be transformed.

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2 Chainz performs onstage during the iHeartRadio album release party with 2 Chainz at iHeartRadio Theater on March 04, 2019 in Burbank, California.
Kevin Winter

With ‘Rap Or Go To The League,’ 2 Chainz Isn’t Underrated Anymore: Review

It’s hard to believe that 2 Chainz still thinks he’s underrated in 2019.

“I know I am underrated,” he reaffirmed to Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club. “If you do a survey, people will sleep on me because sometimes they don’t understand it. It don’t bother me. I’ve always been highly confident. It’s a thin line between cockiness and confidence. And sometimes, I straddle both of them.”

Cockiness and confidence are how 2 Chainz has stayed on top of his game. It’s been his goal to be respected as one of the best MCs in hip-hop, regardless of how many people slept on his previous mixtapes and albums. Whether you know him as Tity Boi, the Drench God, or any other of his many AKAs, he is certainly the hardest working rapper who has earned his spot, rapping alongside the likes of Raekwon, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Drake, Pharrell, and Nicki Minaj since leaving Playaz Circle, his duo under Ludacris' label Disturbing Tha Peace. Throughout his catalog, which includes fan favorites T.R.U. REALigion and his Trap-A-Velli series, Chainz has shown immense growth as an artist, constantly drawing from his personal stories to create anthems for every occasion – hitting licks, throwing birthday parties, making your momma proud. Chainz always got one for you to walk in and then turn up to.

The 41-year-old rapper wants to continue maturing as an artist, hoping his music delivers on quality so he gets the credit he deserves. After the widespread acclaim of 2017’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, with many critics calling it his best work at the time, Chainz wasn’t satisfied with the praise. Recognizing his peers have been using their platforms to educate on subjects like ownership (Jay-Z) and criminal justice reform (Meek Mill), Chainz saw an opportunity to make another play, one that involves addressing a common misconception about what defines success among young black men in poor communities.

 

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With the height of racial tensions across America I felt I should do my part in explaining some of the brain washing formulas used in my community , this album not only touches on those who did succeed thru entertainment but those who didn't ! Welcome to Rap or Go TO THE LEAGUE ! My 5th solo studio album and project that shows continued growth , success , and motivation which is playing a role in the shift of the trap paradigm ✌🏿⛓ #ROGTTL @airsignusa

A post shared by 2 Chainz Aka Tity Boi (@2chainz) on Feb 17, 2018 at 11:29am PST

Rap or Go to the League, his fifth studio album, was announced in February 2018 as his version of “black excellence.” “In my culture, in my community, we were often told [that] it was the only thing and the only way we could get out of the circumstances we were put in,” he explains of the title. At the height of racial tensions across America, he elaborated on the concept as dissecting “some of the brainwashing formulas used in my community.” Chainz is a product of College Park, Georgia and considered a success story, evolving from being an ex-drug dealer and ex-athlete to a veteran rapper who has gotten better with age.

It’s why LeBron James, the executive producer and A&R of Rap or Go to the League, was perfect for the album’s messaging. The Lakers star was faced with his own set of criticisms when he talked politics during an ESPN interview, inciting journalist Laura Ingraham to attack his views. “Keep the political commentary to yourself,” she infamously said on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle. “Or as someone once said, ‘Shut up and dribble.’”

Chainz recognized that LeBron is not only a talented basketball player but plays an important position in hip-hop culture as a curator and celebrity influencer. Instagram Stories of him jamming and scrunching his face to early records by Tee Grizzley, Meek Mill, and Nipsey Hussle, as well as convincing Kendrick Lamar to drop untitled unmastered., are hallmarks of a good A&R. He is more than an athlete, using his voice to effect change, and nowhere near as one-dimensional as Ingraham suggested. In many ways, Rap or Go to the League is a justification that these two can step up and prove their doubters wrong: Chainz can be considered in the G.O.A.T. conversation, and LeBron can empower the youth to believe any dream is possible. You can rap. You can go to the league. You can be more than what society tells you to be.

Chainz uses his own narrative to drive these points on Rap or Go to the League. If LeBron didn’t convince you that Chainz was coming with substance, the album’s opener, titled “Forgotten,” sets the bar of how weighted his songs will be. Marsha Ambrosius anchors Chainz’ emotional lyrics on his hoop dreams turned to nightmares. The second verse is more telling as he reveals how he felt after learning about the murder of his friend and former Disturbing tha Peace labelmate Lil’ Fate’s son. “My head achin', hands started shakin' / Foul beyond flagrant / He said, ‘Bro, what I’m supposed to do?’ / I paused, remorseful / We been partners since public school / Kids ain’t supposed to die before us,” he raps. To end on a spoken word poem about the realities of a black boy living in America is Chainz exploring what it means to be socially conscious. It’s his mission to teach lessons now.

 

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@gas by the BIGGEST TRAPPER OF EM ALL !!!! 🙏🏿💪🏿🔥

A post shared by 2 Chainz Aka Tity Boi (@2chainz) on Oct 26, 2018 at 5:32pm PDT

Chainz and LeBron wanted this album to be played from top to bottom so listeners can take everything in as a whole. Chainz’s first two albums – Based on a T.R.U. Story and B.O.A.T.S. II #METIME – lacked a cohesion that Rap or Go to the League clearly has grounded in Atlanta while elevating trap music to a new paradigm. Each song is based on a true story of Chainz’s life, where he’ll go from saying he owns his own masters (“Threat 2 Society”) to listing all the possible crimes he’s committed and the people he served back in the day (“Statute of Limitations”). In a full circle moment, Chainz has a legal marijuana business now called GAS Cannabis Co. No rap cap.

Chainz has a lot of pride in being a black entrepreneur, who is here to share his knowledge of success through his music. Topics like property investing to stunting in his own Versace collab are motivational benchmarks, but the messages amplify with his relatable, come-up stories. On songs like “I Said Me” and “I’m Not Crazy, Life Is,” Chainz wants you to know that he isn’t perfect, owning up to his past (“…And my daughter asked me what a drug dealer was? I said ‘me’”) and believing in his passion (“They say that I'm crazy now / They said I was crazy then”) are just some of the keys to unlocking your fullest potential. “Sam” tackles taxes on the wealthy, and the abuse of knowing your hard-earned income will be taken away by the government. Chainz is no stranger to this, using it as a life lesson: just dust your shoulders off and keep it moving.

Consistency is what keeps his fans coming back for more. And 2 Chainz knows he doesn’t need to break his formula, enlisting previous collaborators like Young Thug, Travis Scott, Lil Wayne, and Chance the Rapper to add the necessary bravado to each of his records. Ariana Grande appears on the Amerie-sampling “Rule the World,” which was created after the “7 Rings” misunderstanding, and it is easily a Billboard Hot 100 contender. The idea of 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar sounded dope on paper, surpassing expectations on “Momma I Hit a Lick.” If you needed a reason to go out west this summer, “Girl’s Best Friend” and “2 Dollar Bill” are an excellent back-to-back pair of songs for a cruise on Sunset Boulevard.

With all these all-star features on his resume, is 2 Chainz hot enough for a Jay-Z feature? The subtle homages to Hov – sampling “Lucifer” and “Dead Presidents” – and shouting him out on “Threat 2 Society” over a 9th Wonder beat are all perfect jumpers in form. Chainz has talked about working with Jay more than once, recently name-checking him on “Burglar Bars,” and it seems Jay is willing to collaborate even though he apparently missed this album. It’s a bucket list item that Chainz needs before Hov really retires.

There’s one line on “NCAA,” a boisterous track calling out why college athletes don’t get paid, where Chainz raps, “drop my album off the court and make 'em post it.” Not only is this “caption music” at the highest levels (that guitar line is an A1 bar too), it showcases how much admiration he has from the community during on and off season. Just days after Rap or Go to the League’s release, Diddy, Royce da 5'9", French Montana, and more promoted it on social media, congratulating him on what is unanimously his tightest project he’s ever made.

 

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Man @diddy you fukd me up with this one ..always wondered if you remembered that 😳🤭

A post shared by 2 Chainz Aka Tity Boi (@2chainz) on Mar 1, 2019 at 8:44pm PST

2 Chainz isn’t underrated. And even if you still think that after listening to Rap or Go to the League, he’s going to continue bettering himself, pushing boundaries in hip-hop and the intersecting cultures until that validation arrives.

“I ain’t gonna stop being myself, I ain’t gonna stop being highly talented. Qualified,” he said on The Breakfast Club.“I always told myself when I get to the table, whatever table that is, I deserve to be there.”

You deserve it and more, King Chainz.

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20 Years Of TLC's 'FanMail': A Futurist Prelude To Digital Era Intimacy

TLC owned the year 1999. FanMail released on this day (Feb. 23), 20 years ago, and made the Atlanta R&B trio the best-selling female group in the United States. The flood of popular R&B acts that emerged during the early 1990s under the banner of New Jack Swing, hip hop soul, and silky slow jams, fizzled out.

Meanwhile, TLC seamlessly evolved as newcomers like Britney Spears, *NSYNC and Destiny’s Child emerged on the Billboard charts. On the Grammy-winning Best R&B Album opus, TLC and longtime producer Dallas Austin brought back their radio-friendly hip-hop, R&B and pop anthems empowering women and underdogs, this time with a nod to the digital era.

FanMail, from the sound to the art direction, embodied a timely futuristic aesthetic, as everyone was obsessed with technology’s cultural takeover in the new millennium: remember Y2K hysteria, Napster mp3 file sharing, and the Dot.com boom? On the album's cover, T-Boz, Chilli and Left Eye's faces appear as silver-faced avatars floating above an orbit. A code of numbers are printed across the cover, imagery often associated with The Matrix. (Although FanMail dropped a month before the film hit theaters.)

On the title track, listeners are greeted by Vic-E, the everpresent robotic voice narrating the album: “Just like you, they [TLC] get lonely, too." She reassures listeners that fame doesn't stop them from being human. The digitized voice is reminiscent of the “tour guide” on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 album Midnight Marauders. Yet, unlike Tribe, TLC collaborates with the robot, as it contributes background vocals throughout. Austin also sprinkled FanMail with samples of sounds — check “Communicate (Interlude)” and “LoveSick” for examples — he found on the Internet, movies, and devices like printers, he shared with MixOnline.

It was a smart move to modernize, as it had been five years since TLC released its best-selling 1994 album CrazySexyCool. The sultry mix presented a more mature and stripped back follow-up to the colorful, youthful angst of Ooooooohhh... On The TLC Tip. This five-year gap could have left the group’s fans uninterested, especially if they were releasing in today's fast-paced consumption environment, in which stans demand new releases on social media after only a year or two. But the time away didn’t hinder TLC. Now 10 years in the game, they managed a successful return by dedicating this project to their fanbase.

“Left Eye came up with the title, and we made it come together creatively as a group, along with Dallas Austin,” T-Boz said in their May 1999 VIBE cover story. “It was like, Let’s write and sing one big fan letter. Let’s put fan names on everything – all the singles, the album cover, T-shirts, mugs. Just show our appreciation."

Left Eye also chimed in with a transparent business savvy explanation. “Now we know that the way contracts are set up, it’s not really made for artists to get rich from selling records – that’s the company’s one shot to make money,” she explained. “The artist is supposed to use that as an outlet to do merchandising and other things that we never took advantage of because we were too busy sitting in bankruptcy court trying to get a settlement out of LaFace.”

That part. Although TLC were multi-platinum selling artists up until FanMail, they had faced a public financial battle with their management Pebbitone, Inc. and label, LaFace Records. This caused the delay between their sophomore and third efforts. In 1995, the group, who revealed they were "broke" at the 1996 Grammys, filed for bankruptcy in hopes to break their contract and renegotiate a new deal.

They were $3.5 million dollars in debt and earning an 8 percent royalty rate. In November 1996, they settled with Arista and BMG and LaFace for an 18 percent royalty rate. To add to the drama, there were talks of producer Dallas Austin leaving the project because of back-and-forths with TLC and L.A. Reid over the creative direction of the album, the 1999 VIBE cover story stated. Thankfully, the parties resolved their misunderstandings enough to complete one of the biggest albums of the decade.

On 17 tracks, TLC took on sexuality, insecurities, self-reliance, and vulnerability with resistant messaging, their tried and true winning formula. This energy paved the way for Destiny’s Child’s reign in the 2000s, and the transparency R&B singers like SZA, H.E.R. and Summer Walker carry on today. TLC's defiance gave women of the ‘90s permission to be vocal about the spectrum of their emotions, from their sex drives on “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” to revenge cheating on “Creep.” FanMail brought more of those goods.

The most notable “No Scrubs,” also considered pop canon, is a scathing critique on men at bottom of the dating pool. “A scrub is a guy, who thinks he’s fly and is also known as a busta/ always talking about what he wants and just sits on his broke a**,” Chilli belts in opening lines. The no. 1 track became such a phenomenon that it inspired the petty male response, “No Pigeons” from Sporty Thievz, their biggest claim to fame. Former Xscape members Kandi Burruss and Tameka Dianne "Tiny" Harris penned it and Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, also behind Destiny’s Child’s no. 1 song “Bills, Bills, Bills,” produced it.

TLC tapped the legendary Hype Williams for the "No Scrubs" visual. Instead of setting the video in a club where scrubs are likely inhabitants, the visual features the trio in outer-space suits floating through a futuristic setting no scrub could ever reach. Most notably Lopes, who in the video does martial arts while a drone films her, manages to keep the digital theme, even when dissing the guys. “Can't forget the focus on the picture in front of me/You as clear as DVD on digital TV screens,” Lopes raps.

The wonky bop “Silly Ho” is another anti-playa anthem, in which TLC proclaim they aren't the kind of women who are scheming for men's pockets. “I can run a scam before he can/ I am better than a man/ I always keep my game all day,” they chant. TLC keeps demanding respect on the choppy “My Life,” their Janet Jackson Control moment, appropriate given their music industry woes.

TLC breaks from jittery beats and Vic-E assisted numbers for alternative pop, on the album’s second no. 1 hit single "Unpretty," which tackles insecurities caused by a toxic partner’s body-shaming. T-Boz deads him by summoning self-love: “Maybe get rid of you/ And then I'll get back to me, yeah.” The track was inspired by a poem T-Boz wrote, Dallas Austin told CNN in 2000. He also spoke on the songs’ folky essence. "I like a lot of alternative music, and when I saw the title, “Unpretty” reminded me of a song somebody like (alternative singer) Ani DiFranco would have (written). I just went at it,” he explained. The crew also gave us sensual beckoning on the mid-tempo groove “Come On Down,” penned by legendary pop songwriter Diane Warren.

The album ends with soulful bop “Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet,” but it’s “Communication (Interlude)” that feels like the proper conclusion. “There's over a thousand ways/ To communicate in our world today/ And it's a shame/ That we don't connect,” they say in a spoken word that offers a foreshadowing to our present human condition. Loneliness is on the rise, and more screen time and less human interaction are being linked to growing depression among American adolescents. "So if you also feel the need/ For us to come together/ Will you communicate with me?” As technological advancements create the feeling of being in closer proximity to more people's thoughts and happenings, it reminds us that these interactions can be fleeting and one-on-one intimacy with your chosen tribe could never become obsolete.

Although its 1999 original drop date has come and gone, in 2019, FanMail is still a fitting soundtrack for dating in the digital age. Whether they're making their contact through the passenger sides of cars or down in the DMs, the personalities pointed out on the poignant album, are still walking amongst us, messing with our hearts one way or another. FanMail proved that TLC was more in tune with the future than their pop peers, and will more than likely continue to be.

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