Here’s some of the advice we took from the iconic R&B album as it celebrates its 20th anniversary
It's hard to believe that TLC’s FanMail turns 20 this weekend. The album’s biggest hit, “No Scrubs”, remains so embedded in the collective psyche that Ed Sheeran borrowed from it while writing 2017’s tropical chart-topper “Shape of You”. Somehow, FanMail just doesn’t feel like an album that’s three years older than the iPod: its futuristic cover art still looks pretty fresh; its blend of digital R&B, lush balladry and tough club cuts still sounds sharp.
Though FanMail sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, its success was by no means pre-ordained. It arrived nearly four-and-a-half years after TLC's blockbuster second album, CrazySexyCool, following a challenging patch in which group members Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Watkins, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes and Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas filed for bankruptcy and renegotiated a record contact that reportedly paid them just 56 cents per album sold, split three ways. The charts had changed since TLC were last on the release slates; they were now competing against teen-pop upstarts such as Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, whose iconic debut single “...Baby One More Time” they actually turned down.
But along with producers including Dallas Austin (Boyz II Men) and Babyface (Toni Braxton, Madonna), the trio regrouped to make a sleek and seductive pop-R&B gem whose forward-thinking themes still resonate today. Here are some lessons about self-care and self-worth that FanMail has taught us.
LONELINESS DOESN’T DISCRIMINATE
At the start of the album, TLC tell us they're dedicating their “entire album cover” to “any person who has ever sent us fan mail”. The song that follows, title track “FanMail”, hinges on a devastatingly simple refrain: “Just like you, I get lonely too.” TLC were effectively breaking down the traditional barriers between pop artist and fanbase years before Lady Gaga named her stans “Little Monsters” or Rihanna offered coming out advice via Twitter DM. They were being relatable before pop stars were expected to be.
DATING DOWN IS NOT THE WAY TO GO
Thanks to TLC, who doesn't know that “a scrub is a guy who thinks he’s fine (who’s) also known as a busta”? “No Scrubs” is so iconic it’s been covered by everyone from Kacey Musgraves to Weezer, but its message hasn’t dated: Know your own value, and don't waste time on cat-calling deadbeats. Yes, the song may equate a guy’s spending power with his relationship potential in a way that’s kind of crass, but it’s also about respect. For me, the key line has always been Chilli's "if you have a shorty that you don't show love / Oh yes son, I'm talking to you". And two decades later, I’m trying to follow Left Eye’s lead and avoid anyone who “can’t spatially expand my horizon”.
IF YOU’RE NOT SATISFIED SEXUALLY, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT
FanMail has sex-positive bops for days. When TLC sing, “I epitomise the word sexy”, on "I'm Good at Being Bad", they mean it. The same track (produced by longtime Janet Jackson collaborators Jam & Lewis) has the trio boasting that they’ll “make you cum all night” and delivering the still-funny punchline: “A good man is so hard to find... well actually, a hard man is so good to find.”
The album's hardest club track, “Silly Ho”, may inch into slut-shaming territory (“I’ll not be the one in miniskirts / (who) always wanna flirt with every player on the team”), but its core message of valuing your own sexuality is basically sound. And while “Don't Pull Out on Me Yet” was always pretty self-explanatory, I’m embarrassed to say it took me years to realise that “Come On Down” is a cunnilingus anthem – one written, weirdly enough, by power ballad queen Diane Warren.
EMBRACE YOUR AGENCY
Shoulda-been-single “My Life” is a self-actualisation banger. “Sick of people tryin’ tell me what to do,” Chilli sings on the second verse. “It's my life and I'm-a live it like I want to.” Later, Left Eye uses her rap to pay tribute to the mother who “picked up them pieces” when her alcoholic father let the family down. It's a song about personal power, but also woman power.
LIVE YOUR TRUTH
Co-written by T-Boz, third single “Dear Lie” is a deceptively sweet-sounding ballad about breaking free from a web of dishonesty. “I’ve got your balls, now get the hell away from me,” they sing, directly addressing the lie that’s got them in a chokehold. TLC never say specify what this lie is, so this song can chime with anyone who’s ever hidden a part of themselves – in my case, my sexuality – in order to fit in.
BODY ANXIETY IS NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF
It’s no exaggeration to call “Unpretty” a game-changer; had a pop song ever spoken this bluntly about body-image anxiety? Based on a poem written by T-Boz, it explores the way society pressurises women into looking and presenting in a certain way. When they sing, “Why do I look to all these things? To keep you happy / Maybe get rid of you / And then I’ll get back to me,” they're probably addressing an unsupportive partner. But they could also be singing about patriarchal beauty standards.
“Unpretty” struck such a chord that co-writer Dallas Austin essentially recycled it into the 2005 Sugababes single “Ugly”. “I didn't realise at the time so many people felt the way I felt,” T-Boz said of “Unpretty” a few years ago. “But (this song) came to help inspire people.” It’s the emotional peak of an album whose poignant parts sting even harder because it was the last TLC made as a trio. Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes died in a car accident in April 2002; vocals recorded before her death were used on that year’s 3D album, but T-Boz and Chilli wouldn’t record a full album without her for another 15 years.