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Can You Have TLC Without the “L”?

More than 15 years since Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’s death, the legendary R&B group soldiers on. But why?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In August 2000, 18 months after TLC released its massively successful third album, FanMail, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes blew off a press conference. This wasn’t unprecedented behavior. Tensions within TLC had been building and for months the charismatic rapper had been skipping public appearances, including a recent episode of TRL. (When Carson Daly asked where the third bandmate was, a coy Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas got in a jab at Left Eye: “All I have to say is… Imodium A-D; put it together.”) But at this press conference, Lopes hadn’t given her bandmates or her label warning about her absence, and not long after people began to speculate that the rapper had gone “missing.” In truth, she was trying, quite literally, to drive as far away from her fame as she possibly could: Instead of heading to California she’d gotten in her car in Atlanta and driven through Mexico, to Central America, eventually landing in Honduras. Two years later, Lopes was asked about skipping the press conference in the The Last Days of Left Eye, a documentary that chronicles the month leading up to her tragic death in 2002 at the age of 30.

“What’s better than showing up and being the star? Not showing up,” Lopes says. She laughs, then shrugs. “So I didn’t show up. And I was the star.”

With 65 million records sold worldwide, TLC is still the most successful American girl group of all time. The camaraderie among the trio — in good times and bad — was a significant part of TLC’s appeal, and even though they were assembled in LaFace’s offices when the label was in search of a girl group in the age of Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue, you got the sense that the bond between them was real. They complemented each other well: T-Boz had a no-filter attitude and that low, seductive voice; Chilli had a quiet, laid-back cool; and Left Eye was the outspoken firecracker with a cartoonish tone, but a surprisingly sophisticated flow. The group’s breakout 1992 hit was “What About Your Friends?”, a rambunctious ode to having each other’s backs. TLC were a lot of things over the years, but one word never associated with them was fake. So the intragroup drama in the late ’90s felt like an inevitable outcome of three different personalities who’d spent a particularly wild decade together. They were real about that, too: “You know, it’s like we’re like sisters,” Chilli said in an interview around that time when questioned about comments she and T-Boz had made about Lopes’s increasing absences. “So, that day, the two big sisters were mad at the little sister.”

But before they’d have a chance to mend all those cracks, let alone finish the follow-up to FanMail, the little sister was gone. On April 25, 2002, Lopes was killed in a car crash while on a spiritual retreat back in Honduras. She was there with some members of her family and the singers who comprised a new girl group she was mentoring called Egypt; Lopes died on impact while everyone else in the car survived. That moment was now captured in eerie, intimate detail in The Last Days of Left Eye. Lauren Lazin’s film catches Lopes in a reflective, questioning state of mind; in B-roll she’s seen drinking cleansing herbs and, yoga-toned, wanders through the jungle musing about her past and her future. In the comments section of a video containing some of this footage, fans debate whether or not Lopes had some cosmic inkling that she was filming her farewell. One of them writes, simply, “She knew.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“This is so hard, because it’s such a reality check,” Chilli said in a tearful tribute to Lopes at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, “because it’s only two of us up here.” That was an undeniably powerful moment, but in the 15 years since, T-Boz and Chilli have occasionally stumbled when trying to figure out how best to honor the legacy of their late group member, and whether or not to carry on as TLC. In November 2002, less than seven months after Lopes’s death, they released 3D, an album that featured previously recorded verses from Left Eye. (It went platinum, but sales were modest for TLC, and it failed to produce a hit single.) In 2005, T-Boz and Chilli hosted a somewhat controversial UPN reality show called R U the Girl?, which was initially billed as a competition to find a new group member to replace Lopes. By the time it aired, though, they backtracked and said that the winner would simply get the opportunity to provide guest vocals on a new single without committing to adding a new member. The winner, an MC named O’so Krispie, dropped a verse on their single “I Bet” and never collaborated with the group again.

More recently, the remaining members have caused some controversy by calling on more high profile artists to pay tribute to Lopes. In 2013, they released an updated “20th anniversary” version of their single “Waterfalls” with Lopes’s iconic verse rapped by the Japanese artist Namie Amuro; later that same year, rapper Lil Mama (who played Left Eye in the VH1 biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story) joined them on stage when they performed the song at the American Music Awards.

Although T-Boz and Chilli maintain that they were only paying tribute to their late friend, Lopes’s surviving family members — her mother, and her brother and sister, who were both with her in Honduras — have publicly criticized some of these decisions. Yet another war of words erupted last week, as the duo prepared to release its long-delayed, Kickstarter-funded fifth studio album, titled TLC. Lopes doesn’t appear on the record, and in a Billboard profile, T-Boz claimed that the Lopes family was “trying to hold her vocals hostage.” (A few days ago, they gave a statement to Variety saying this was not the case.) Still, the album raises the same questions fans and family have been asking for 15 years now: Did we need a parting statement from TLC? Can the group in good faith even call itself TLC when it’s missing the “L”?

There is no episode of VH1’s Behind the Music more iconic than TLC’s. They packed an entire soap opera run’s worth of drama into 43 minutes: the group’s combative relationship with its first manager Perri “Pebbles” Reid, T-Boz’s struggles with sickle cell anemia, and, of course, that time Lopes burned down then-boyfriend Andre Rison’s mansion by torching a pair of sneakers in a tub. But no moment is more memorable than Lopes’s explanation of why the group was forced to declare bankruptcy at the height of CrazySexyCool’s success. “This is how a group can sell 10 million records and be broke,” she says; the clip has had such a thorough digital afterlife under the title “Left Eye Breaks It Down!!!!” that someone even made a Sims 2 version of it.

To say that CrazySexyCool still bangs is an understatement (but definitely the appropriate verb). It may be the defining R&B album of the ’90s, slinking from timeless dance floor-fillers (“Creep”) to silk-sheet romps (“Red Light Special”). But if you had to distill the album, and even the band down to its essence, the song is of course “Waterfalls.” It’s something more poetic than just a message-song: It’s an all-purpose balm for so many varieties of pain. That it was fueled by the group’s public struggles only made it more powerful; Lopes wrote her part — the “Monster” verse of its time — while she was in rehab. T-Boz’s gravelly croak is the earth, Chilli the ethereal wind beneath her wings, and well, Lisa, do I even have to say it? Fire.

FanMail is remembered for its enduring singles “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty,” but taken as a whole it’s a deeply underrated album: As I noted when I wrote a reappraisal of it a few years ago, it was one of the very first pop albums to draw from the burgeoning aesthetics of the internet. It was glitchy but still smooth, a sultry cyborg manifesto that’s aged better than almost every other pop album released in 1999. (A few years ago, Drake even paid tribute by covering its title track; he barely had to alter the arrangement for it to sound contemporary.) TLC were onto something with FanMail, and the group’s great musical missed opportunity was that they never got to follow this particular thread of technofuturism a little further. But it’s unclear if that would have been any different had Left Eye lived. In FanMail’s aftermath, the group was already splintering possibly beyond reconciliation; Lopes went so far as to denounce FanMail to several reporters (“I cannot stand 100 percent behind this TLC project,” she told Vibe). She was right about a lot of things. She was wrong about that.

In January 2015, T-Boz and Chilli announced that they’d be funding their next and final album as TLC via a Kickstarter campaign. 48 hours later, they’d not only met their goal but they’d become the “fastest, most funded pop project in Kickstarter history.” (Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and yes, even New Kids on the Block all donated.) In the end, they’d raised more than $430,000.

This is the most triumphant thing about TLC: More than two decades removed from the major-label contract that forced them to declare bankruptcy, the group is able to take back control of its finances. (Even if that creative freedom has meant that the record is coming out nearly two years later than they’d initially promised.) TLC feels, above all things, celebratory. “You still my bitch,” T-Boz says affectionately on the lead-off single, “Way Back,” a laidback ode to lifelong friendship that features a verse from Snoop Dogg in the void where Lopes would have made an appearance. The brassy “It’s Sunny” revolves around a sample of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”; the ballad “Perfect Girls” is a welcome “Unpretty” update for the Instagram era. One misstep is “American Gold” an empty anthem that recalls Rihanna’s protest song about nothing, “American Oxygen,” and will remind some listeners that the remaining group members have been voicing some questionable political opinions on their comeback press tour. But, on the whole, it’s more heartening than I expected it to be, listening to T-Boz and Chilli’s familiar voices remark on their world in the present tense. I’m sure fans would be open to continuing to hearing them collaborate in the future under a new name. Because I’m sure that most fans, respecting the unruly memory of Left Eye, would be fine if this album were the last word from TLC.

What’s a group supposed to do when one of its founding members dies? It’s an uncomfortable question that no artist ever wants to have to consider. Across musical history, groups have answered it in different ways. Nirvana rightfully disbanded after Kurt Cobain’s death (though when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they performed with several female guest singers, such as Kim Gordon and Lorde), but both AC/DC and No Doubt replaced their original lead singers after their deaths, and continued on for many years, in both cases with greater success. As a group that had already found such a large audience, and that was going through inner conflict at the time of Lopes’s death, TLC’s situation was unique, and it would be cruel to judge too harshly the way T-Boz and Chilli have handled themselves in such uncharted waters. But it also feels like a kind of poetic justice for Left Eye that, 15 years onward, questions about her legacy still dominate conversations about the group. On this new record, she never shows up. And in her own way, that makes her the star.