One of the most rewarding parts of being a music fan is picking a side and arguing for it to the ends of the earth. Pac or Biggie? Britney or Christina? Beatles or Stones? In the series Pop Battles, The Ringer will try to settle long-standing music rivalries using listener data from Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming service. How are today’s young people connecting with the legendary artists of yesteryear, and what does it say about the way these artists will be interpreted in the future?
In the year 1999, two female R&B groups from the South released acoustic guitar–driven singles about that most triflin’ of companions: men. Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” was a seductive screed against infidelity by an 18-year-old burgeoning superstar and her color-coordinated posse (Jay should have taken notes). TLC’s “No Scrubs” was a casually caustic diss track by the reigning queens of R&B against a carless, penniless poser (also known as a busta). Today, these are the two most popular songs on Spotify by the two most popular girl groups of the past 40 years. But a look beyond the mega-hits shows a pair of acts with fundamentally different styles and internal dynamics. Who was greater?
While Bey was still in the hip-hop rappin’ Girls Tyme, T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli were building the most commercially dominant girl group since the Motown era. It’s easy to forget what a huge deal TLC were in their heyday. They had nine singles crack the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10. CrazySexyCool was certified diamond by the RIAA, and the group’s four LPs have sold a combined 22 million units domestically. The only girl group to ever dominate the Billboard charts more thoroughly is the Supremes (Destiny’s Child ranks third).
But TLC doesn’t feel quite so pervasive in 2016, and their total number of streams falls far below those of Destiny’s Child. Their successful 1992 debut album, Ooooooohhh … On the TLC Tip, has largely failed to resonate with younger listeners despite carrying many of the most powerful messages of the group’s career. “Ain’t 2 Proud to Beg” proclaims that a woman can seek sexual satisfaction from a man while still being independent (sound familiar?). “Hat 2 da Back” argues for a woman’s right to wear baggy pants and a baseball cap if she so pleases (again, familiar). And “His Story” explores how hard it is for a woman’s narrative to earn the same credibility as a man’s in sexual assault cases. But TLC arrived on the scene ready to party, not preach, so most of the moralizing is packaged with new-jack-swing percussion and manic Bomb Squad–inspired alarms. It’s all very early ’90s in sound, which might not connect with a streaming audience that’s mostly younger than 34. Though TLC’s debut generated three Billboard top-10 hits, no song from the album has as many as 5 million streams on Spotify.
There’s a pretty heavy recency bias when it comes to TLC’s music. While CrazySexyCool (1994) is the group’s best-selling and most acclaimed LP, it’s FanMail (1999) that has the most Spotify streams (TLC’s last album, 3D, was released in 2002, nearly seven months after the death of Left Eye). FanMail’s “No Scrubs,” at nearly 90 million streams, has almost twice the spins of CrazySexyCool’s “Waterfalls,” which is often thought of as the group’s signature song. Spotify’s millennial listeners are likely flocking to the TLC songs that populated TRL video countdowns and Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations during their formative years, rather than the group’s earlier work.
Unfortunately, the general streaming consensus seems to be selling TLC short. “No Scrubs” is great, yes, but shit-talking dudes is only one of TLC’s many pastimes. Over the course of a decade the group morphed from jokester feminists wearing condoms on their overalls to sultry divas issuing anguished warnings about HIV to futuristic cyborgs ensuring that the new millennium would be rated M for mature (“10 inch or bigger” is one of the least explicit lines on FanMail’s “I’m Good at Being Bad”). They did all this while deftly mixing Left Eye’s winking raps with T-Boz’s and Chilli’s sung vocals. The group managed to reinvent themselves constantly, and they didn’t have to swap out group members to do it.
(Just as an addendum: “Creep” should be TLC’s most-streamed song. “Creep” is suave and subversive and sexy as hell. What’s wrong with all of you?)
Did you know Beyoncé sings every memorable part of “Say My Name”? Beyoncé sings both verses. Beyoncé sings that part right before each chorus where the drums spaz out and everybody in the music video’s brightly colored rooms starts dancing. Beyoncé sings the “yeah-yeah-yeah-YEAH” bridge. Beyoncé sings the ad-libs, and Beyoncé sings the runs. “Say My Name” is a Beyoncé song featuring Destiny’s Child for harmonies.
So is “Independent Women Part 1.” So is “Bills, Bills, Bills.” So is “No, No, No,” the group’s first top-five hit. From its inception, Destiny’s Child was a Beyoncé star vehicle, which seems obvious now that she runs the world, but was less obvious when Destiny’s Child was cycling through members even as it was supplanting TLC as the dominant girl group of the early 2000s. Think about that: Serving as the lead singer of one of the most successful girl groups of all time is now just Beyoncé’s origin story.
That dynamic has a positive and negative effect on the legacy of Destiny’s Child. The group has many songs that remain extremely popular, with five tracks garnering more than 20 million Spotify streams. Beyoncé continues to promote the act’s catalog — she’s currently performing “Survivor” on her world tour, and when she organized a surprise Destiny’s Child reunion at the Super Bowl in 2013, the group’s album sales more than quadrupled overnight. Every time Beyoncé drops a surprise album or watches an elevator fight with cool detachment, someone somewhere in the world queues up “Jumpin’ Jumpin’” for old times’ sake. The remaining members of TLC simply don’t have that level of clout.
Still, the fact that Destiny’s Child was so reliant on a teenaged Beyoncé means their catalogue can feel one-dimensional compared with TLC’s. For the most part, they stuck to one sound — staccato, bass-heavy beats and abruptly paced verses that make you want to freeze mid–finger wag. Their topics of discussion were similarly narrow, usually centered on trifling men, perfect men (there’s literally a song called “Perfect Man”), or why you really don’t need a man, anyway. This all comes together in a great package on 1999’s The Writing’s on the Wall, the group’s most-streamed album, which has an all-star roster of producers such as Darkchild (“Say My Name”), Kevin Briggs (“Bills, Bills, Bills”), Timbaland (“Get on the Bus”), and Missy Elliott (“Confessions”). But their self-titled debut, released the previous year, features mostly lethargic bedroom jams outside of a couple of fruitful collaborations with Wyclef Jean. Their third album, Survivor (2001), is also chock-full of hits, but its chart-topping gimmicks feel dated (who among us is playing “Bootylicious” in 2016? More than 30 million of you, apparently). Destiny Fulfilled (2004), the group’s fourth and final LP (Christmas album notwithstanding), simply feels inessential compared to the era’s other major pop-R&B albums, by the likes of Usher and, uh, Beyoncé.
Destiny’s Child may have eclipsed TLC when it comes to streams, but it’s the older trio whose albums hold up better, showing an honest trajectory of growth into womanhood through self-awareness, humor, and some legitimately poignant moments (again … FAMILIAR). Put simply, TLC felt real, especially when you look past the hits. Destiny’s Child felt like the precisely executed remake that lacks the character that made the original endearing — like the inspiration for one of their biggest hits, actually.