"FanMail" Turns 15: Looking Back At TLC's Most Prescient Album

How the group somehow got the future right from the past of 1999.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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There were a lot of crazy predictions about the future put forth by hip-hop and R&B in the late '90s. But from the year 2014, TLC's FanMail got it right.

The shiny-suited millennium was rife with futurism, or at least what hip-hop and R&B envisioned a mostly-utopian future would be. It's subject to some mockery now, for being dated and funny like the janky plastic holodecks in 1960s sci-fi films, but the vision put forth by these genres was no joke and unmatched at the time.

We didn't know what would come of us in 1999, how the coming information age would affect us; the kids in Hackers wore Rollerblades, for the love of god. Email was still rickety, just barely gazing toward the bright horizon that was Hotmail, which seemed revolutionary at the time. The hip-hop and R&B music of that era was full of vision and pointed us to where we might aspire to be. It gave us a hope and acknowledged, implicitly, that all our lives were about to change. We were careening toward Y2K, a year we actually believed would explode the power grid due to a computer glitch—spoiler: nothing happened—and the prospect of the 21st Century, plus the increasing prevalence of email and the Internet, imbued the pop landscape with an expansive sense of imagination.

When TLC dropped their third album FanMail in February of 1999 (one month before The Matrix hit movie theatres), they were the most accurately prescient of any of the musicians shiny-suiting that shit—more prescient than shiny-suit godheads Puffy and Ma$e, or even precogs like Timbaland or Pharrell. Constructed as a direct message to their fans, FanMail was conceived as something of an inchoate Twitter—pop superstars shortening the distance between themselves and their audience by acknowledging them individually, both visually and by name. Binary code was big in '99 (just as it is in '14), and TLC cascaded it across their album cover, an envelope icon representing both the corporeal and conceptual.

With the concept of fan-outreach, TLC was sincerely trying to touch all the bases, crafting fist-in-the-air woman-power anthems, as well as weepy, pillow-hugging singalongs.

The title track, which also opens the album, is one of the first-ever pop songs to mention "email." (Britney Spears' "E-Mail My Heart," from ...Baby One More Time, beat "FanMail" by a mere month). Propelled by that signature T-Boz low-roll, it sounded like an intimate missive over a sneaking bassline, vocal stutters and glitches peppering it like the stumbles of dial-up Internet. But its lyrics also depict a vision of the powerful global connectivity we would soon have via the info superhighway: "Said I got an email today/Kinda thought that you'd forgot about me/So I wanna hit you back to say/Just like you I get lonely too." Twentieth Century problems, solved later on the album with "Communicate interlude," which pairs the tap-tap of keyboard typing with Left Eye (or, in 2014 parlance, @lefteye) inquiring, "Will you communicate with me?"

Much of FanMail was produced by Dallas Austin under his A.I. alter ego, Cyptron, and it's hosted by a female android named Vic-E whose robot voice is only slightly less humanoid than that info chick on your iPhone. (Ask Siri if she's "friends with Vic-E," and she'll answer "No comment." Shaaaaade!) She anchors the album, while acting as a conduit for its vision: Everyone knows that human-helping androids are an important part of the future, and the advice Vic-E dispenses is crucial, and possibly even more helpful than Siri. "In the club, people use material things to increase their chances of a pick-up, such as diamond Rolexes, Prada bags, and Versace outfits. I guess it makes them feel special. In Japan, they just move to the 1 and 2." Left Eye was wearing a tiny hoop pierced through her left eyebrow by this time; she also employed a fake patois in "Shout." The beat for "Lovesick," with its dial-tone samples syncopating the drum pattern, remains hot, as do Prada bags and Versace outfits. Life is cyclical.

Beneath all of FanMail's visionary veneer, though, TLC's essence shone, and that meant a lot of sensual, assertive songs about integrity and self-esteem. "No Scrubs," the album's lead single and an international smash hit still, was ushered in by a skit called "Whispering Playa." On it, a corny dude at a party tries to holler at the ladies, who respond with incredulous giggles. Its overall mien, a more mature transition from similar sentiments expressed on Oooh… on the TLC Tip, set a precedent for the bossy steezes of stars that marched in their confident footsteps, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ciara, Minaj. And, well sure, "Cyptron" was doing his best Timbaland imitation on "Silly Ho" ("Are You That Somebody?" had swept the world off its feet in June of '98), but its message was one of total independence, and not playing one's self out to sit at the feet of a dude. (Even Vic-E wasn't having it, declaring "I'm OUT" on the bridge.)

Yet, they weren't all hard exterior: the popular, proto-"Pretty Hurts" ballad "Unpretty," written by T-Boz, detailed the decline of a woman's self-esteem, at the hands of a debilitating and emotionally abusive man. With the concept of fan-outreach, TLC was sincerely trying to touch all the bases, crafting fist-in-the-air woman-power anthems, as well as weepy, pillow-hugging singalongs.

Maybe too many of the latter, actually. FanMail came at a tumultuous time for TLC. It was their first album after filing for bankruptcy in '95 and a public beef with their label LaFace. More pressingly, it represented a rift that had developed within the group. Left Eye denounced much of their music via a VIBE Magazine cover story that also revealed Dallas Austin, their longtime producer and the father of Chilli's son, had almost walked off the project. On one hand, it's why FanMail is a strong step for TLC's independence: Then in their late 20s, the women were staking out on their own after being burned by bad management, and some of their choices, such as using producers other than Dallas Austin, weren't amenable to everyone in the group. On the other, it's why FanMail is in a bit of disarray, particularly in the album's ballad-heavy latter half, which was partly, according to Chilli, inspired by Shania Twain. (Bless Shania Twain and new directions, but at some point you sacrifice cohesion.) Left Eye told VIBE, "I cannot stand 100 percent behind this TLC project and the music that is supposed to represent me." (She later complained about the group turning down the song "Heartbreak Hotel," which ended up going platinum for Whitney Houston; it's also worth noting that Britney's "Baby One More Time" was offered to TLC first.)

With the perspective of history, FanMail's gleaming prescience is also slightly somber. Left Eye, never quite satisfied after its release, dropped her first solo album in 2001, a week before Aaliyah died. Eight months later, she, too was dead. The weightless beats that informed FanMail—no doubt stemming from Timbaland's influence—fell so far out of fashion they're coming back in style again only now. Drake covered "FanMail" as "I Get Lonely Too," transforming a populist song about unity and empathy into a navel-gazing, self-contained diary entry.

But on the other hand, this world we now live in is the FanMail dream realized. They can talk to their fans directly every day if they like, and Chilli often does, hitting Twitter for bouts of RTs and answering questions when she's in the mood. Cool T-Boz is characteristically less interactive, offering photos of her day, bon mots, or her opinions on current cultural happenings.

The FanMail concept was Left Eye's idea in the first place, though, and while the world she left behind remains only through relics, her bandmates could resurrect her through hologram if they so chose. (They won't. But here we are, the future.) But in a way we really have reached that utopia, talking to each other every single day, separated only by fiber-optics and our own imaginations.

"Communication is the key to life," declared Left Eye on her interlude. "Communication is the key to love. Communication is the key to us. There's over a thousand ways to communicate in our world today. And it's a shame that we don't connect."

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd (@jawnita) is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.

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