If you think multiplatinum success has attracted a better breed of man to TLC, you would be incorrect, at least judging by the trio’s third album, ”Fan Mail.” Song after song, skit after skit, chronicles a world in which T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli are cheated on, lied to, and propositioned by sleazebags. ”No Scrubs,” the album’s supple first single, slams the very idea of a ”scrub,” defined as ”a guy that can’t get no love from me/Hangin’ out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride/Trying to holla at me.”
How do TLC strike back at these rogues? They scrawl messages on their beaux’ cars (a Lexus coupe — ouch!) or take control of their own finances: ”I ain’t never been no silly bitch/Waiting to get rich/ From a nigga bank account,” they sing in ”Silly Ho” (which could be a jingle for a hip-hop investment firm).
In the TLC scheme of things, these sentiments are par for the course. From the start, with their 1992 debut album, the Atlanta-based trio presented themselves as frisky, free-spirited rap feminists, apt at both seduction and confrontation. In their lissome 1994 hit ”Waterfalls,” they even ventured into the land of the protest song. ”Fan Mail” marks their return after a five-year layoff that’s been attributed to squabbles with their label, a bankruptcy claim, and at least one large, roaring fire. But for all its verbal bravado, the album takes the grown-up moves of its predecessor, ”CrazySexyCool,” to their bland denouement. It would be a stretch to ever say TLC’s divas are capable of vocal home runs, but the three voices heard throughout ”Fan Mail” are startlingly faceless and homogeneous. Processed and manipulated within an inch of their throats, TLC deliver a string of passionless put-downs, whether they’re crooning or rapping. The album’s cover art and its recurring sound-effect motif (a computerized woman’s voice) play up the idea of TLC as silver-skinned cyborgs, a conceit that rings truer than anyone in the TLC camp may have imagined.