T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli: from the shade of a summer block party, to the champagne room of your mans-an-em’s favorite bar. The move from Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip to CrazySexyCool, showed a growth during the two years in between that sounded like twelve – age: ain’t nothin’ but a number. The anthemic urban contemporary album is a staple of 90s music; it is like any hustler’s down bottom: your ride or die, never fail, glitzy/grimy when you need it to be, solid go-to. The group matured, but more importantly, they did so together. Their sophomore effort reflected the urban music world’s trinity: three distinct parts of the same unified entity. The sound and demeanor reflect a subdued confidence, the sleeper swag so indicative of 90s female R&B music. The title says it all, and it is really all you need: Crazy, Sexy, Cool.
Crazy: Busta Rhymes, Puffy (back when he was), Jermaine Dupri, Andre 3000, Dallas Austin, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg – the crazy part: it all worked seamlessly. TLC enlisted on the hip-hop heavyweights – not so much to add the male perspective, as to display how the male puppets get played. Now people want to work for Diddy, but in 1994 Chilli made Diddy work on “Sexy – Interlude:”
“Puff: Hello? Chilli: What you doin’? P: I gotta get back to work, man C: I want you to stop working. P: What you wanna do? C: I want you to… mmmmmm… I want you to… Pass me some tissue… So I can wipe!! Ha ha ha! *Flush*”
The group’s “Crazy” (left of center on the cover shot as well) was Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who not only brought the off-beat mentality of a lady, but backed the beats with her signature flow. “Left Eye” was the dynamic spark that gave momentum to TLC’s otherwise mellow mode.
Sexy: Dead center on the album art, and at the focus of the group’s image and sound, was their understated but undeniable sex appeal. CrazySexyCool is the Red Light District: dark, hazy, taboo, under-rug-swept, but the frequented vice. As one of the iconic recordings of the 90s, its provocative lyrics and explicit narratives were hidden in plain view; please believe that when “Creep” came on though, “Yes, it’s me again,” everyone sang along – shady guilt-ridden side glances and all.
While Tommy Hilfiger says “Sexy is leaving something to the imagination,” TLC put it all on display. The overt lyrics,
“So I creep yeah, just keep it on the down low/ Said nobody is supposed 2 know, so I creep yeah/ ‘Cause he doesn’t know, what I do and no attention, goes to show/ Oh so I creep…”
are eased by the group’s smooth,”so it is,”delivery.
The tone is so deliberate – yet so subtle – but TLC walks you through each track like a story overheard while eavesdropping on a cell phone call in any city. “Sexy” here is that sense of getting a peek behind the curtain in the champagne room; the songs come across like a secret you stumbled across one night at Magic City; just another night in the Red Light District; on deck: the Red Light Special,
“Take a good look at it, look at it now/ Might be the last time you’ll, have a go round/ I’ll let you touch it if you’d, like to go down/ I’ll let you go further, i you take the southern route.”
Cool: The beats: not ice cold, they don’t need to be. TLC isn’t about extremes, they’re about a steady cool that inversely makes everything around them sear. The album works so well because it rides as one long soundtrack. One song to the next, each coasts over deep – but unassertive – bass, lax hi-hat playing off of the pop of the raspy snare. The sweltering horns, and low pulse of the drum and bass are offset by hot guitar riffs; like the cool T-Boz and Chilli to Left Eye’s kick.
Cool is not sweating your own style – or substance. The standout track, “Waterfalls,” harkens back to the social aptitude and awareness of the condom-eyewear donning TLC of old. Like Everlast’s “What It’s Like,” the track narrates broad social issues – but through the vantage of the everyman: your brother, your friend, your classmate, your lover, you – which is why it resonated so strongly and struck such a chord with the listener, every listener. They touch on gang life,
“A lonely mother gazing out of her window, staring at a son that she just can’t touch…/ He can’t seem to keep his self out of trouble/ So he goes out and he makes his money, the best way he knows how/ Another body laying cold in the gutter,”
“But he doesn’t recognize his own face, his health is fading and he doesn’t know why/ 3 letters took him to his final resting place/ Y’all don’t hear me.”
The world heard though, loud and clear – because when the message is hot-button, the messenger should be cool.
TLC’s sophomore album, wasn’t an effort – it was effortless – and stands as the reason why most other 90s female R&B singers’ second albums slumped. They remain one of the greatest female groups of all-time (wait imma let you finish) – keeping in mind it was another 5 years (roughly 5 million pieces of fan mail) until their next studio release, and please believe CrazySexyCool was still on heavy rotation during the downtime in between.
CrazySexyCool was just that, and that was all it needed to be – and you can take that to the memory bank: unforgettable.