TLC's glam goddesses resurface with 'Fan Mail'
Long-awaited album follows five years of chaos and misfortune
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By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- This time last year, hip-hop's best-known trio could have changed its name from TLC to DOA.
In 1994, TLC glam sistaz Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas had a hit about chasing "Waterfalls." At the same time, they were about to go under themselves in what resembled a whirlwind Cinderella story gone very awry.
But after a five-year absence, they're back with their album "Fan Mail." Released this week, it's dedicated to the listeners who stuck with them through years of bickering, skirmishes and then pretty much complete silence. Some fans who wrote the trio actually have their names listed in the liner notes.
"There's no better way to say thank you," says Chilli, in between feeding spaghetti to her young son at her Atlanta home. "You can't literally touch everybody but this is our way of doing it."
"Even during our absence, it didn't matter -- people would see me out and somebody would ask me for an autograph and ask about us. They were concerned," Chilli adds.
And they had good reason to be, as TLC tumbled from the best-selling female group of all time to titillating tabloid fodder.
From acclaim to insolvency
In 1992, the goofy, cartoonishly clad sexy tomboys of TLC released their first album, "0oooooo ... On the TLC Tip." With T-Boz's husky, rumbling vocals, Chilli's smooth voice and Left Eye's staccato rapping, the album sold over 3 million copies, producing two platinum singles and the gold hit "What About Your Friends."
Their 1994 follow-up, "CrazySexyCool," made history, spawning the platinum singles "Creep," "Red Light Special" and "Waterfalls." The seemingly grown-up, glammed-out trio walked off with just about every prestigious award in the industry, including two Grammys and two Billboard Awards. But offstage, the band was imploding. They fought with their label LaFace over an unsatisfactory contract, which they said pushed them into filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection despite astronomical album sales of $175 million. And they wanted to dump management company Pebbitone, headed by former singer Perri "Pebbles" Reid, who had helped transform TLC from cute Atlanta teens to top-selling national knockouts.
Moreover, T-Boz, who has sickle-cell anemia, was exhausted from constant performing and was in poor health. Left Eye was in trouble with the law over setting fire to then-boyfriend, Atlanta Falcons player Andre Rison's Atlanta mansion. The band itself seemed burned out.
New album dedicated to staunch fans
Now, TLC says the chaos is behind them. They regrouped, worked things out with the label and won a better contract, settled with both Pebbitone and their creditors, and took time off to work on side projects. Left Eye and Rison broke up; she started her own label with Sony and hosted MTV's talent show "The Cut." T-Boz, who is national spokeswoman for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America, appeared in the recent movie "Belly," and, according to Chilli, today is in top shape. And Chilli had a baby, 20-month-old son Tron, with super-producer Dallas Austin.
"We're really happy that all of that's over. That's behind us," says Chilli, somewhat tired of endlessly talking about the trio's sketchy past. "You get tired of talking about the negative stuff. Everything is positive now."
If nothing else, the last five years were a learning experience for TLC.
"If I changed a lot of things, I wouldn't have the wisdom I got from going through the bad stuff. I wouldn't change anything," laughs Chilli.
Through the public embarrassments and private debacles, the trio's chemistry kept them together, she adds.
"In the group, that plays the biggest part over anything else. We have our own friends and family and we have gone for months and months without seeing or talking to one another," says Chilli. "But once we're together, the chemistry kicks in. That's why we don't call it quits."
And in their downtime, they managed to unite for "Fan Mail."
"I don't know if we're on top of the world again, but I hope this album does well or better than the last album," says Chilli.
Slick and smutty
Welcome to the new, improved, ultra-glossy TLC. "Fan Mail" is a powerhouse of an album, more slick and polished than previous TLC releases, but just as bawdy and funny.
The album features TLC's trademark playful, witty take on girl power, in the bedroom and beyond. And it has the fail-proof Midas touches of its top-notch producers: Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Dallas Austin, Darryl Simmons (Dru Hill), Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Jermaine Dupri (Usher and Monica).
It's so jam-packed with bouncy potential hits that it's hard to actually pinpoint the best ones. But the caustically smutty "I'm Good at Being Bad," which has T-Boz rephrasing "a good man is hard to find" into something a little lewder, and the poppy, lilting "No Scrubs" are the surefire radio hits. "No Scrubs" is currently number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and saw one of the biggest increases in the number of radio stations playing it nationwide for the second week of February. Other highlights include the lovely, lush T-Boz and Austin-penned "Unpretty" (Chilli's favorite), the buoyant "Shout," the techno-funky "Silly Ho" and no-nonsense "My Life," which deals with the challenges of being a public personality -- something very familiar to TLC.
Although the trio will continue doing side projects, Chilli insists they have no plans yet for breaking TLC up and becoming solo artists. When they're good, they're very good, so why mess with something that clearly clicks so well?
"It's our destiny to be together. It's our 15 minutes to shine and it's not up yet," she says.
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