Eulogizing Lopes, as Missy Elliott does, is one thing; carrying on without her is another, as TLC surviving members T-Boz and Chilli attempt to do on 3D. Nearly every major hip-hop producer — including Elliott — contributes, as if lending both emotional and creative support. Thanks to such hired guns as the Neptunes and Rodney Jerkins, TLC have made a better post-tragedy album than expected. ”3D” is a smorgasbord of modern R&B that ranges from silky (”In Your Arms Tonight”) to retro (”So So Dumb”); ”Damaged,” a genuinely uplifting song about being emotionally screwed up, benefits tremendously from the use of live instruments rather than samples.
Still, ”3D” feels a little incomplete, like much of their work. A contradiction always existed around TLC — namely, that their processed, homogenized records never matched the spunky personas they exhibited off stage and in print. That’s never been more the case than now. Lopes may not have been the world’s most accomplished singer, but she did have personality (eccentric, to be kind, judging by a listen to her still-unreleased solo album, ”Super Nova”). Lopes’ feisty raps were among TLC’s few truly distinguishing characteristics, and her appearances on the few cuts completed before her death — like the frisky ”Quickie” or the trash-talking pajama party ”Girl Talk” — attest to that. On ”3D,” T-Boz and Chilli don’t step forward so much as recede a little further into the background. The pleasant and somewhat anonymous pop they make without Lopes may be the most fitting testament to her legacy.