When it comes to understanding the African American experience, no one is more unqualified than I am.
I am a gay, Asian-American man with classical music training and a fondness for indie rock, especially when performed by Japanese musicians.
How could black culture ever speak to me? What could I possibly find in common with three black women from Atlanta, ruthlessly exploiting their femininity as a weapon in a battle of the sexes, cutting clueless men down to size in the process?
Wait a minute. That feels like deja vu.
Huh. It is deja vu. It’s how EOnline writer Andy Chen described Japanese rock superstar Shiina Ringo in 2000. And it’s pretty much what TLC has done throughout its career.
There’s a long history of strong, black women asserting their identity in a male-dominated world, before Salt ‘N’ Pepa and Queen Latifah busted their way into hip-hop, before Janet Jackson declared she was in control, perhaps as far back as Aretha Franklin declaring her love for you like no other.
But with TLC, black men found a formidable opponent. Left Eye, Chilli and T-Boz — they weren’t having none of that macho shit.
And nothing states that more forcefully than “I’m Good at Being Bad” from 1999’s FanMail.
“Nigga you must be crazy/Whacha gonna do with a bitch like me?” TLC challenges, later stating, “I’m not the mushy kind.”
Having abandoned radio back in the late ’80s, I was cognizant of the overexposure given to “No Scrubs” but never affected by it. Still, “No Scrubs” is damn catchy tune, if not melodically, then certainly in attitude.
Some of the best moments in music express yearning, but with “No Scrubs”, it’s the prohibition that makes it singular.
The hooting intro and simple beat of “Silly Ho” exude swagger, and despite the nearly imperceptible vocals, one line comes across clearly: “I’m not the one for you.”
FanMail has its tender moments, and in fact, the second half of the album crashes because too many of them happen there.
“Unpretty” poses the idea that the methods meant to enhance prettiness don’t actually create beauty, but when FanMail gets slow and sentimental — as it does on “I Miss You So Much” and “Dear Lie” — it gets generic.
“My Life” and “Shout” keep the momentum going for a while, but “Lovestick” and “Automatic” don’t quite give the album a sterling finish.
Still, TLC takes listeners on one terrific ride. The heavy-handed production of Dallas Austin, Babyface, Jam and Lewis and Shekspere keeps up with the bravado Left Eye, Chilli and T-Boz exhibit throughout.
TLC wins the adoration of fans and, perhaps, the respect of some critics for standing up and showing strength. I may not have much in common with them, but I like their style.