TLC (released June 30, 2017)
Poor TLC is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
They’re stricken with the curse facing every legendary artist looking for a place in the ever-evolving musical climate – constantly being judged by their past successes, yet criticized when they attempt to branch into a new sound.
It’s either “they fell off” or “they sold out” – three words that haunt nearly every 90s group looking for a new start.
But we know TLC is not some random 90s collective. In many ways, TLC WAS the 90s.
TLC’s brand of female empowerment, brazen fashion sense and unforgettable records made them cultural icons. An entire generation was molded by their words and that impact still reverberates today. Their sass is what gave Beyonce’s Lemonade its kick and made Rihanna into an Anti-hero.
Chilli and T-Boz embrace that legacy in their attempt to reposition themselves on their self-titled fifth release, their first in 15 loooong years. Instead of going completely for nostalgia or totally diving head-first into trendy modern product, Chilli and T-Boz straddle the line – an awkward balancing act that causes more than a few stumbles.
First single “Way Back” was made for your 20-year high school reunion. It’s just familiar and breezy enough to be enjoyable without sounding too archaic. Snoop Dogg’s verse adds to the energy as the ladies reminisce about Prince and Marvin Gaye. It’s like a big ol’ Generation X cookout. “It’s Sunny” carries a similar vibe, featuring a ’70s groove and instrumentals straight from Earth Wind & Fire’s horn section.
Familiarity plays in their favor on “Perfect Girls,” bringing back memories of their classic “Unpretty,” with its message coming down to this realization – “guess it comes down to loving myself.” Even the airy “Start a Fire” features catchy acoustics in the mold of, um, you guessed it, “Unpretty.”
And it’s at this point where that familiarity starts to breed contempt.
While the first half of the album seems to celebrate the past, the second half looks ahead. Again, it’s the right direction but the execution is shaky.
“American Gold” adds TLC’s voice to social commentary currently gripping the country and with their standing as women trailblazers, you’d think they’d have a thunderous message of change. No, instead it’s the same platitudes we’ve heard before. “Scandalous” capitalizes on the EDM craze (a year or so too late…) and actually isn’t bad, but just feels a bit stale. “Aye Muthaf***a” has all the TLC attitude but none of the staying power.
The one tie that could have bound the album’s loose ends together is Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, whose mastery of both hip-hop and R&B could have given needed edge to the album’s earlier tracks and help ground later ones.
And I mean, can you IMAGINE Left Eye in the social media era? Y’all would be writing 17 think pieces a day from just one of her tweets.
TLC is more of a frustrating album than a bad one – the themes are here, the nostalgia is strong, the tone is decent but it feels more like the skeleton of an unfinished product instead of a fully formed body of work. Everything from the production to the writing seems in dire need of tightening.
TLC’s musical legacy is unbreakable, there’s no denying that. But maintaining relevance is a much tougher mountain to climb and the ladies still have a lot of work to do.
Those rocks and hard places ain’t no joke.
Best tracks: “Way Back,” “Start a Fire,” “Perfect Girls”
3 stars out of 5