TLC - CrazySexyCool
#377 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums Of All Time
#77 on Q's Top 100 Albums Of All Time
Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (Crazy) - vocals
Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas (Sexy) - vocals
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins (Cool) - vocals
If we're being totally honest, the average shelf-life of an R&B album (if R&B is taken to mean Destiny's Child rather than The Who) is roughly 18 months. Both R&B and rap really suffer from this alacrity of movement - while many rock records from the 90s mask their age pretty well, anyone with enough experience of the music can put an accurate date on any 90s R&B record they've never heard before. Some massively successful bands retain a grunge sound to this day, but anyone trying New Jack Swing now would in all likelihood get laughed out of the industry. And how do you think listeners in 5 year's time will react to the production style of KanYe West, given how horribly dated most of P Diddy and Jermaine Dupri's stuff sounds now? Only time will tell, I guess.
With that in mind, a timeless, classic record coming out of that scene is a real rarity. How many are there? For my money, there's only two certainties - The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, and this.
With a lot of urban music from that period, the back story can often seem a lot more interesting than the music. And here, too, it's tempting to claim TLC have been totaly overwhelmed by Lisa 'Left-Eye' Lopez. She was, after all, always the group's Unique Selling Point, and in their early days her visual presence brought a lot of attention to the group they wouldn't have got otherwise. For those not old enough to remember, she wore glasses with a condom over one eye. Something to do with promoting safe sex, apparently. Her reputation as R&B's consumate eccentric was secured when, shortly before the release of this, their second album, she was arrested. Why? Well, she burnt down her boyfriend's house, and tried to destory several of his cars too. The rumour at the time was that her boyfriend, the NFL star Andre Rison, hadn't bought her a present for a full two months. Hell hath no fury like a mentalist scorned. She only escaped a prison sentence by checking herself into rehab, claiming alcoholism. This event isnpired the name of the album - Left-Eye being the 'Crazy' contingent of the group.
After that, the group fell into bankruptcy, accusing LaFace Records of not giving them the royalties for this album. The twist? TLC's manager had just been through a nasty divorce with LA Reid, boss of LaFace. Later, Left-Eye returned to the headlines after going missing for a full week. Her solo album was pulled in America by her label, leading to her signing to - ye gods - Death Row in 2002. This proved to be the last year she'd see, as she died in Honduras as a result of a nasty car crash. Her death spelt the end of the group.
Awesome back story, no? Somehow, in the middle of all that, they released this - an album that soared above the group's problems. Left-Eye's problems will be forgotten (as far as base public consciousness goes, they already have been), but this won't. Aside from the critical acclaim it still recieves, it spawned four massive hits in Red Light Special, Creep, Diggin' On You, and the simply awesome Waterfalls, and remained in the charts for a long, long time, shifting 11 million copies in the US. It launched Jermaine Dupri and Babyface's careers; both would become major, major names in R&B in the coming years, yet neither would ever better what they did here. It even brought the mighty Outkast to public attention for the first time, with Andre 3000 showing up to rap on Sumthin' Wicked This Way Comes. And hell, at a time when Prince was an object of abject mockery, covering If I Was Ur Girlfriend reminded people just how great he used to be.
It proved to be something of a marker for the future, too. Destiny's Child were invented by this album - it's that simple. In the UK, Misteeq and Sugababes took the album to heart. In fact, you can trace any female modern soul singer who alludes to hip-hop in her sound back to this album, which includes......ooh, all of them.
There's a reason CrazySexyCool has proved itself so enduring - it's a consistently excellent record. The songwriting, production, arranging, and vocal performances throughout are among the best the genre's ever seen. In a genre notorious for delivering albums that consist of 2 singles and a load of casually tossed-off filler, this is a rare, precious commodity. Like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it's also crossed over to an audience that wouldn't usually go near anything like this, though on a smaller scale.
The long and short of it is that CrazySexyCool is just a brilliant album. It's proof that at its best, modern R&B really can compete with the highlights scraped by Motown. Only the skits and interludes really come in the way of this being a perfect distillation of the genre.
Within The Genre - 5/5
Outside The Genre - 3.5/5
Recommended Downloads -
Produced by Organized Noize, a name Outkast fans might well recognize. I'll spell it out clear: any list of the best singles of the 90s that does not include this in the top 15 - at least - is among the worst lists ever written. Socially conscious at a time when it was unfashionable, this song belongs to a lineage you can trace right back through Sly & The Family Stone, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder. The arrangement and instrumentation is absolutely fantastic - if a bunch of great melodies had an orgy, the result would something a little like this - and the lyrics are the best on an album that maintains a shockingly high standard of songwriting. Left-Eye drops the album's best rap on this track too.
Red Light Special
Mean, moody, sultry, and understated, this Babyface-penned stunner showed a side of TLC we hadn't seen before, and didn't see after. T-Boz takes the lead vocal, her husky voice later underpinning Chili's higher-registered moans. As come-ons go, this is unbeatable - three lines in, T-Boz is already singing 'I'll let you touch it if you like to go down/I'll let you go further if you take the southern route'. Ouch, baby, ouch. 'Baby it's all yours, if you want it tonight/I'll give you the red light special, all through the night/Just come through my door, take off my clothes....' It borders on intimidating, which just makes it even sexier. Then again, maybe that says more about me than the song. The lead guitar on this track, by the way, is fantastic, and is probably another nod to Prince.
Really, any song on the album up to and including If I Was Ur Girlfriend could have taken this slot. The consistency really is that high. The reason I pick this is latent fanboyism - The Afghan Whigs covered it. Written by Dallas Austin, this is an anthem of infidelity. 'The 22nd of loneliness, and we've been through so many things/I love my man with all honesty, but I know he's cheating on me', T-Boz defiantly sings over a well-chosen Slick Rick sample ("Hey Young World"). Slicky produced, and excellently performed.
Ginuwine - The Batchelor
Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill
Prince - Sign O' The Times