TLC’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ Turns 25

TLC’s ‘CrazySexyCool’ Turns 25

Crazy. Sexy. Cool.

Three descriptors, tacitly inviting us to match them to the three faces on the cover. In 1994, that was many pop fans’ preferred version of connect-the-dots. As all the cool kids knew, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was the Crazy one, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas the Sexy one and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins the cool. It was cartoonishly reductive, sure, but no more so than the teen-mag summaries of the Beatles 30 years earlier, which parsed the Fab Four as the Smart One (John), the Cute One (Paul), the Quiet One (George) and the Funny One (Ringo).

Comparing TLC to the Beatles may strike some as insane; on the other hand, within a year of its release, CrazySexyCool had sold more than seven million copies, a record no Beatles album can match. Moreover, although TLC never captured the zeitgeist of the ’90s the way the Beatles took command of the ’60s, the group does mark an important inflection point in the development of celebrity culture, because T-Boz, Chilli and Left Eye were as revered for the flamboyant messiness of their personal lives as for the soulful vocals and deep grooves of their biggest hits.

Musically, CrazySexyCool was notable for a couple things. First, and most important, it was where the Atlanta sound truly came into its own. Thanks to a production dream team that featured Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri and Organized Noize, among others, it managed to fuse the Top 40 friendliness of the girl-group aesthetic with the deep grooves of Southern club music.

It also managed to place TLC at the intersection of R&B and hip-hop, a balancing act that previously had seemed all but impossible. Rappers lived and died on notions of “keepin’ it real,” whereas R&B girl groups were all about selling the dream. Somehow, the sound TLC got on CrazySexyCool worked like a quantum computer, operating on processing in which both values could be true at the same time.

Left Eye was, in some senses, the realest of the three. Attentive fans already knew she had a rough childhood, with an abusive, alcoholic home situation, but on June 9, 1994, her problems became national news. She had been living with Atlanta Falcons receiver Andre “Bad Moon” Rison when, in a fit of anger, she set fire to his shoes and inadvertently burned his mansion down. In the days before TMZ, this sort of scandal was the kind of dirt fans were seldom privy to, yet the very weirdness of the story—set fire to his shoes??—earned her more sympathy than approbation. It also whetted the audience’s appetite for more insight into the personal drama that fueled TLC’s music.

Problem was, the members of TLC weren’t confessional songwriters. Hell, they weren’t really songwriters at all. A big chunk of CrazySexyCool was written by either Babyface or Dallas Austin. If it weren’t for Left Eye’s raps and Chilli’s “Sexy” interlude, no one in TLC would have gotten a writing credit on the album.

Still, it wasn’t hard to get a sense of where these three were at from the songs. Where Ooooooohhh … On the TLC Tip relied mostly on girlish enthusiasm, CrazySexyCool focused on womanhood, and as such took a decidedly adult view of sex and love. Emphasis on adult. The first single, “Creep,” was about getting some on the down-low because your partner wasn’t being faithful, the sort of soul-song scenario that wouldn’t merit a second glance—except for the fact that it was written by Dallas Austin, who was in a fractious and complicated relationship with Chilli at the time. The video shed no light at all, apart from showing off how good TLC looked in silk pajamas.

“Red Light Special,” the second single, was a bluesy, slow-grinding, let’s-get-it-on song, illustrated by a less-than-subtle video centered on a high-stakes strip poker game. That said, TLC wasn’t playing the sex. “Red Light Special” may have been blunt about dealing with desire, but it was also about agency—about both partners getting what they want, and in ways that empowered, not objectified, them.

“Waterfalls,” the third and biggest single, was the album’s tantalizing prize. Built on an intoxicatingly jazzy track, it set itself up as a cautionary tale about trying to shortcut your way to happiness. On the lyric sheet, the chorus didn’t quite work—how can you chase something as immobile as a waterfall?—but the verses and the video presented an affecting morality play for those trying to hustle too hard or love too much. And there was the takeaway. TLC wanted so much but got so little—the group filed for bankruptcy less than a year after CrazySexyCool was released, citing a penurious contract—and that, tellingly, was a lesson millions of fans could relate to.

J.D. Considine has written for Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe, Spin, Blender, Revolver, Guitar World, Musician, DownBeat, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Globe and Mail and numerous now-defunct periodicals. He lives in Toronto.

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