Hip-Hop’s Queen Supernova: Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes

For the first piece in EST. 1997’s Ladies Night: A Summer of Hip-Hop Queens series, we crown Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes the Queen Supernova of Hip-Hop.

It is eery that Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes’ last body of work before her death in 2002 was entitled Supernova. A supernova, in astronomical terms, is the largest type of explosion that can occur in the universe; it comes at the end of a star’s life cycle. In Left Eye’s case, it was both her debut solo album, and, heartbreakingly, her final one, too. Her hope and intention for the project was for it to blow up — for her to become the brightest burning “star,” so to speak, in TLC. She strove to be the musical equivalent of a supernova.

That she was. In TLC, she was not only central to their name (as in, the L in T-L-C), but central to their creative process and, in the press, their most prominent attention-getter. As much as they have tried, T-Boz and Chilli have failed to continue their career as a 2 woman show successfully. Without Left Eye’s presence and creative influence, TLC has indeed dulled its shine.

Still, from 1992 until 2002, Left Eye’s star shined brightest. The majority of TLC’s best and most successful songs feature Left Eye, despite the fact that more than half of their music is absent of a rap from Lisa. People often debate who is or was the best or most successful and important female hip-hop artist. Some argue, of course, for Lil’ Kim. Others, for Lauryn Hill or Missy Elliott. Some might learn toward Queen Latifah. Some youngins might even think it’s Nicki Minaj. However, Left Eye is often overlooked in these conversations, unjustly so. She was, in fact, a key figure in female hip-hop.

Think about it. In 1992, TLC debuted and scored 3 Top 10 hits in a row off of their debut album: “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” “What About Your Friends,” and “Baby Baby Baby” (the latter of which was the first of many more occasions when Left Eye was… #LeftOut). They went on to have huge hits with 1994’s “Waterfalls,” and 1999’s “No Scrubs,” as well, which have become pop music classics. While it is certainly debatable as to who is the best female rapper of all time… Left Eye was one of the most mainstream female rappers, thanks to her hits with TLC, paving the way for the pop-crossover success of females to follow like Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott and, yes, Nicki Minaj. While Left Eye did not sing, her raps were woven into R&B songs with pop sensibilities, ala mid-90s songs by Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige. However, TLC, Missy, and Lauryn would show that women could handle both the singing and the rapping without needing the help of any man on their tracks.

Back in April, on the anniversary of her death, I created a playlist containing 15 of my favorite Left Eye flows, compiled from her verses on TLC songs and guest features. This time, though, I aim to focus on her underrated, obscure and often overlooked solo album, Supernova. If only it had been the first of many in a long, successful solo career.

Released in 2001 (albeit, barely) by TLC’s parent label Arista, Supernova, like TLC’s earlier career, was plagued by label drama. After its lead single “The Block Party” did not perform well, Arista cancelled further singles, and its release, without a second thought or chance. The album eventually was released overseas but never officially in the United States. It is for this reason that the album is so elusive.

Overall, it is quite clear that the label was not supportive of the project. Not only did they fail to give her a second chance, but it is also quite apparent that Left Eye was not given much of a budget for the album. Perhaps Arista was merely trying to appease Lisa by allowing her to record and “release” a solo album, only to sabotage it in favor of furthering TLC as a group. It is likely they felt that Lisa going solo would not have been as profitable for them, so they sabotaged her solo project to coax her back into making the next TLC album. While this is just my own opinion, who would really be surprised by this? The music industry is a notoriously shady business.

Anyway, Supernova’s lack of budget on the production side yielded a great album that had potential to, however, be so much more. Conceptually, and lyrically, Lisa brought her game and delivered a solid body of work where it counts most: within her words. In a rare interview, Lisa spoke of the album, explaining how she wanted it first and foremost to have a positive message, on a spiritual level. She wanted to uplift and inspire people. So, it was only appropriate that the set begins with “Life is Like a Park,” a breezy track that suits its title perfectly. The motivational track perfectly combines Lisa’s thought-provoking words with soulful vocals from Carl Thomas that add a church-vibe to the song. It is for sure a standout on the album.

From there, Lisa ups the ante and delivers “Hot!,” a ferocious firestorm filled with unfettered fierceness – fittingly so, considering the track’s title. If “Park” is the calm before the storm, “Hot!” is the explosion of the Supernova. As egotistical as it may sound, the song is still empowering for the listener. Lead single “The Block Party” follows, which, actually, captures the essence of one quite well. I never understood the decision to release it as the lead single, though. The chorus is a bit grating and nothing about the song is all that catchy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun track, but nowhere near as statement-making as something like “Hot!” or the next song would have been.

That song is “Let Me Live,” which bears a title eerily significant while listening posthumously. The song is a no-holds-barred confessional in which Lisa speaks of rebirth and her past misdeeds. Her in-your-face, raw honesty on this track will hit you immediately, making it another standout on the album. “Jenny,” meanwhile, showcases her storytelling abilities as she recounts a hilarious encounter with a friend named – you guessed it: Jenny.

Ironically, the next song “I Believe In Me” was not even written by Left Eye. Nevertheless, it’s a nice, inspiring song. The inspirational moments continue on “Rags to Riches,” which features boyfriend Andre Rison (yes, that boyfriend) detailing their own stories of coming up from the bottom. While it may be a bit clichéd, it is effective nonetheless.

Lisa goes back into the confessional to showcase her storytelling skills once more for “True Confessions,” my personal favorite on the album. “True Confessions” is rather scandalous, telling the story of Lisa obliging to her man’s request to fuck another woman he sees in the club. It gets even more graphic, though – I’d advise you to just listen to it. I don’t want to spoil it for you.

From here, Supernova takes a much more serious turn and, like “Let Me Live,” is quite heavy to listen to now, after her death. First, there is “Untouchable,” which features a posthumous verse from 2Pac. On the song, Lisa gets deep, talking about what it’s like “on the other side.” 2Pac ends the song saying he will comeback after his death like Jesus. While it is indeed an iconic pairing exemplifying their immense talents, it can sometimes be a bit too much to listen to.

A complete 360 from that is “Head to the Sky,” which features girl-group Blaque, Left Eye’s protégées. On it, Left Eye addresses the youth of our nation with an encouraging message to persevere through adversity, both she and Blaque’s rapper Natina making particular mention to gun violence. Left Eye’s final verse on the song speaks to adults and her follow music-makers, encouraging them to be positive role models for our youth. Adding to the heaviness of the latter third of the album, though, is this fact: Natina too passed away at the age of 31 in a car accident. Back to back, Left Eye is rapping alongside rap stars who also passed away far too soon.

On “The Universal Quest,” Left Eye questions existing in yet another thought-provoking track. Musically, it is sparse and has a tribal sound to it. Featured artist Esthero’s fluid, floating vocals add to the songs other-worldly atmosphere, only complimenting Lisa’s captivating spoken word. Finally, Lisa literally takes us to outer space on the pensive album closer, “A New Star is Born.” She states her belief that when a person dies, a new star is born. In the song, dedicated and spoken to her father, she says, “I’m trying to cleanse my soul and get into that place you’ve been… No, I’m not trying to rush anything, I just want to visit you, because I miss you.” It is a tough song to listen to, yet heartbreakingly beautiful.

Sort of like her last musical breath, literally and figuratively, “Breathe,” appears as a hidden track following “A New Star is Born.” It is like the conclusion to the album, Lisa stating her case and reflecting upon her life and experiences. She raps the entire song with the quickness and sounds as though she’s nearly out of breath during some of it, no doubt on purpose. “Breathe” showcases Left Eye’s complex side, similar to that of her verse on “No Scrubs.” She recites, “just breathe, and let it go…” and the album ends with piano and birds chirping.

Let the album restart, and you will be greeted once again with the happy chirping of birds, guitar, and Lisa’s loving laughter. Supernova was the first, last, and only complete body of work that Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes truly left her fans. It showcased so much potential; it showcased the woman and artist we were only beginning to become acquainted with. If only she had more time, her genius truly would’ve exploded into supernova-level brightness, making her the solo star that she, my favorite female rapper, deserved to be. Instead, all we have is one album, Supernova. But, if Left Eye’s theory is correct, then on April 25, 2002, a new star was born; and she’s just waiting to become a literal supernova in a few million years…

Listen to Supernova via the YouTube playlist below, or purchase it here.

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