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.” (Given its references to cars and trick turning, the song could also be about a prostitute grown weary of come-ons.) 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.
The music that bumps and grinds behind the trio attempts to compensate for the lack of personality in the women’s voices. Featuring a who’s-who crop of contemporary R&B producers, from Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin to old schoolers Jam and Lewis, all of them jacking up the beats, Fan Mail is a seemingly endless parade of hooks. Some of them feel natural and enticing. ”No Scrubs” and ”Unpretty” ease into caressing grooves that offset their defensive lyrics; they’re ear candy with a bite. Other touches are essentially gimmicks: ”I’m Good at Being Bad” couples the chorus of Donna Summer’s orgasmic ”Love to Love You, Baby” with flaccid gangsta-girl lyrics, while ”Silly Ho” is built on a foundation of annoying sonic burrs and cutesy chop-suey synths. Fan Mail‘s something-for-everyone menu also includes a contribution by songwriter-for-hire Diane Warren (whose ”Come On Down,” produced by Austin, is a semi-stoned soul picnic that’s less hackneyed than Warren’s usual work) and the requisite slew of formulaic, queasy-listening ballads.
For all its studio craft, the element glaringly absent from much of Fan Mail is the very stuff of R&B — sweat, soul, heat. Even when TLC dip into a double entendre, as they do on the vampy pillow-talk finale, ”Don’t Pull Out on Me Yet,” they seem less interested in arousal than in a quick nap. The banality of TLC’s voices is, alas, sadly typical of the state of much contemporary R&B singing. Think of James Brown, Aretha, Patti LaBelle, even (at her occasional funkiest) Whitney Houston: Each of them delivered heart and lung power, reaffirming R&B as pop’s sexual haven. From Brandy and Monica to R. Kelly to groups like Dru Hill, so many current soul men and women warble in the same half-asleep murmur. Once the essence of sensuality and vocal foreplay, the genre has become curiously dispassionate. Perhaps it’s a sign of these innocuous musical times, a world in which harmless boy bands, refried swing, and droopy alt-rock rule. In this scenario, it’s not surprising that so much chart-topping R&B shakes, but rarely stirs. B-