20 Years Of TLC's 'FanMail': A Futurist Prelude To Digital Era Intimacy
A look back at the iconic R&B trio’s third studio album.
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.