CrazySexyCool: TLC’s defining album turns 20

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November 15, 1994.

Twenty years ago female R&B trio TLC released CrazySexyCool. It was the first album by a female group to go Diamond in the U.S., and with over 20 million copies sold worldwide it is the best-selling album of all-time by a female R&B group. The album is also a major reason TLC is one of the most important female groups since The Supremes.  TLC made independent women a trend, and each member of the group offered something vital; that’s why TLC couldn’t find success after the death of one of its members. To some degree, R&B groups in general couldn’t sustain that success as there are currently no notable R&B groups. The music TLC made in the ’90s has stood the test of time, however, and CrazySexyCool is their crowning achievement.

TLC debuted in 1992 with Ooh…on the TLC Tip, which managed to be both free-spirited and headstrong. It also relied heavily on the new jack swing sound that was big in the early ’90s. The follow-up CrazySexyCool was a mature step up from that debut, with a focus on groove more than beat. TLC led off the era with the laid-back, seductive groove that is “Creep.” It’s a sexy, horn-fueled song that addresses infidelity from the woman’s side; she cheats because she isn’t getting affection from her cheating partner. One of the most important aspects of TLC’s legacy is how they consistently toyed with the idea of acceptable female behavior. The title of the album refers to a specific personality in each member of the group, but more than that refers to the myriad of qualities found in females in general.

The next single was the genuinely sexy (and grown) “Red Light Special,” on which the girls tell lovers how to communicate and please them sexually. Producer Babyface throws a guitar into the sensual R&B sound. As usual, T-Boz sings the husky verses, and Chili comes in to kill the bridge with her soulful vocal style.

Group member Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes doesn’t make an appearance on the first two singles. She was in a substance abuse program during much of the recording of the album, but her contribution to the group was always more behind-the-scenes than on record. Lopes provided a framework for the group’s image and a thematic heft to their sound.

Lopes does have a rap verse, and a fairly iconic one at that, on the album’s third single. TLC’s crowning achievement commercially, and perhaps artistically, is “Waterfalls.” The lyric addresses social issues like the drug game and HIV, and the funky production seamlessly mixes in horns and guitars to provide a backdrop for the descending pop melody. It’s the type of song Sly & The Family Stone recorded in the ’70s and that Prince recorded in the ’80s. “Waterfalls” spent 7 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100, and the video won the MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year.

The final single off CrazySexyCool was “Diggin’ On You.” It’s a smooth, summer love song that cracked the top 5 of the Hot 100. The album also held quality tracks like the sultry “Take Our Time,” the bouncy and instructional “Kick Your Game,” and dark album closer “Sumthin’ Wicked This Way Comes.” That last track throws elements of rock into the funk/hip-hop mix and also served as an introduction to Andre 3000.

With its mix of smooth grooves and hip-hop beats, and its mixture of songs about the dynamics of relationships as well as social consciousness, CrazySexyCool is the best Prince album he never made. It’s no coincidence, then, that one of the songs on the album is a cover of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” If the cover lacks the gender-bending complexity of the original, it still maintains a fascinating funk edge.

The influence of TLC, and CrazySexyCool in particular, was felt for the next 10 years and earned enough credibility to be named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest 500 albums of all-time.

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