There’s so much angst in current popular music. Katy Perry warns, “Don’t you come for me” on “Swish Swish.” Kendrick Lamar demands that egomaniacs “be humble.” Beyoncé raises her “middle fingers up” on “Sorry.” So TLC’s self-titled final studio album fills a void, taking a more nurturing approach to addressing modern-day social ills.
On TLC — the group’s first album since 2002’s 3D (which was TLC’s last with Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who was killed in a Honduras car accident that same year) — surviving members Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins encourage women to accept themselves on “Perfect Girls,” urge listeners to ignore detractors on “Haters,” and send condolences to those lost at war on “American Gold.”
“Perfect Girls,” which addresses young women’s desperate longing for attention on social media, is a standout track, and it could almost be seen as an unofficial sequel to TLC’s 1999 hit “Unpretty.” Once again, TLC are stressing the message that thy want girls to love themselves. “You have a lot of girls putting up these pictures, but they post these pictures and that’s not how they look,” Thomas says. “They have these apps that alter how you look and filters for days, and that song lets everybody know that perfect girls don’t exist. We all have our flaws. Everybody.”
“Haters” is another anthem for the social media age, in a way, but it has a uniquely positive spin. “When you think about the title ‘Haters,’ it’s kinda like, ‘Whoa, how are you going to sing about that?’ But it’s very kumbaya, in my opinion,” says Thomas. “We want everybody to get together and hug it out and sing this song to those who are hating on them. You don’t allow [haters] to have power over you.”
While the new album’s energy is generally upbeat, the somber political track “American Gold” addresses war, loss, and TLC’s willingness to fight for change, and its recording process took a toll on Thomas. “That song is very sad,” she says. “I remember we were in the studio, and after I finished singing, I was supposed to get back to it, but I never did for some reason. I felt so sad and depressed. Those lyrics are so relevant to what’s going on.”
The messages on TLC are a continuum of what they started when with their 1992 debut Ooooooohhh…On the TLC Tip and followed up with inspiring anthems like “Waterfalls” and “Unpretty.” Instead of falling in line with current trends, Chilli and T-Boz insisted on staying true to themselves. Chilli attributes the outcome to assembling the right creative team.
“It was very important to make sure we worked with people who understood us,” Thomas says. “We would tell producers and writers, ‘Hey, don’t try to recreate anything that we’ve done.’ Or, ‘Don’t say, ‘Hey, I think I have a TLC song.’’ What does that mean? It’s not a TLC record necessarily until we create it together, until it comes from scratch. Most of our songs came from scratch, even in the past.” Otherwise, the creative process was similar to the way TLC worked in the past, though this time, they used a completely new team of songwriters and producers, except for “Waterfalls” co-writer Marqueze Etheridge, who helped pen TLC’s “Aye MuthaF***a.”
The biggest adjustment had to do with being more involved in the business and marketing setup for the album. “It definitely was a lot more work,” Thomas says. “When you’re talking about getting everything together, we really had to be hands on. But it felt good. It was cool to do.” She adds, “I feel blessed and thankful that we’re still able to do this and, most importantly, that people want to hear our music and want to see us and hear what we have to say. I do it with a smile on my face.”
The additional work comes with having their own label. Thomas and Watkins formed 852 Musiq, and secured distribution through Sony Music RED (U.S.), Cooking Vinyl (U.K.), Liberation Music (Australia), and Warner Music (Japan). They financed the project in 2015 through a record-setting crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter, raising $400,000 from famous fans like Katy Perry, New Kids on the Block, Justin Timberlake, and Bette Midler. While they raised the money quickly, it took some time to prep and release the album. They had to honor other commitments, a tour with NKOB, and work overseas. “It doesn’t normally take us long to do an album,” Thomas says. “But it was the schedule. We had two writing camps, one in L.A. and one in Atlanta.”
Considering TLC’s long hiatus, the response to their new music has been very favorable. The video for “Way Back,” the first single featuring Snoop Dogg, has nearly 4 million plays on YouTube, and “Haters” is approaching the half-million mark. Plus, there are plenty supportive comments from fans who are happy to see the ladies’ return.
Despite confusion surrounding the news that TLC is their final album, Chilli and T-Boz, who begin headlining the “I Love the ‘90s The Party Continues Tour” with the likes of Mark McGrath and Naughty By Nature on July 7, don’t have any plans on retiring soon.
“This is our last studio album, but not the last of TLC,” Chilli stresses. “We are going to continue to tour and do TV work separately. We are hoping we can secure a residency in Las Vegas. That is the ultimate goal. I have so many ideas with staging. It would be awesome.”