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Reviews

TLC
TLC Tara Joshi , July 3rd, 2017 15:59

You can never truly replicate or even touch the gold-lacquered past you look back on so fondly, but little hints and throwbacks are often enough to evoke a smile, a sigh, a sated feeling. With certain artists, with acts that have come to represent a specific time or sound, we don’t really care about whether the new stuff is any good. It almost doesn’t matter, given the joy they’ve already brought us.

Which brings us to TLC - whose name sits at the hallowed pinnacle of girl groups. It's 15 years since their last release, and 15 years since the untimely death of the extraordinary Lisa 'Left-Eye' Lopes, and they have just released a final, self-titled, fan-funded album. Their legacy is so great - they’ve already produced some of the most innovative, influential music in the modern canon of R&B and, for women artists especially, they changed the game with their glorious ‘take shit from no one’ attitude - maybe it really doesn't matter what this new record is actually like. Maybe we have trapped them in our own nostalgia.

Of course, being a revered, quintessential 90s group doesn’t stop you making something genuinely great now (last year’s final Tribe album, We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service was testament to that). Indeed, T-Boz refuses to acknowledge the term ‘throwback’: “Our music will always be relevant,” she said in an interview last month, and their UK show at KOKO earlier this year seemed to prove her point. So there’s been a sense of excitement for Chilli and T-Boz’s final outing under the TLC name; and 15 years is a long time to plan a goodbye.

What we find on TLC is really only 'relevant' in that it recognises how influential their sound has been to what is happening in present-day R&B (although a few moments could tenuously be considered trap-lite). There’s a case to be made for timelessness - songs like ‘Scandalous’ cement TLC’s place as the forebears of the exquisite dark, sultry stylings we hear from Kelela and on FKA Twigs’ poppier songs, while the message of ‘Perfect Girls’ is as important in 2017 as ‘Unpretty’ was back in 1999.

But overall what we hear on this record sounds like a slice of late 90s/early 00s street soul: the bouncy woodwind and keys of 'Way Back' deserve a beachside Hype Williams video, and the song even features the languid drawl of Snoop Dogg. 'Way Back' succeeds in being a euphoric slice of nostalgia, and it revels in that very TLC nonchalance: “It’s nothing but a thing to pick up where we left off,” they sing, having opened the album spitting “No we don’t need no introduction"; it’s just that having a whole album that largely emulates a sound from more than 15 years ago feels anachronistic - and a chorus about “James Brown and Michael J” feels much cheesier than anything the TLC ladies used to serve up.

Of course, Left-Eye’s raps would normally cut through moments that risked being too schmaltzy. The touching ‘Interlude’ splices in excerpts from a Left-Eye interview, and - although it’s a predictable take - it really does make you miss her, and her absence is felt throughout the album. “I lost some friends, some friends that I didn’t want to,” they sing later on ‘American Gold’. Although it’s strange and sad to not have her on the record, given TLC’s penultimate album 3D was rushed in the aftermath of Lopes’ death, there’s something fitting about Chilli and T-Boz finishing TLC on their own terms, more than a decade later.

‘It’s Sunny’ is a terrible song: a mash-up of Bobby Hebb’s ‘Sunny’ with Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ plus a grating original chorus never needed to happen. The chorus for ‘Haters’ feels a little overzealous too, and ‘Start A Fire’ just floats by forgettably.

“I’mma take you back down memory lane tonight,” they sing on closing track ‘Joy Ride’, which serves as an emotional thanksgiving. In some ways TLC’s trip down memory lane is unnecessary - some memories are better left untouched, and the weaker songs do make you feel sad at those memories being tarnished.

So, this is not an incredible album. But in the context TLC’s legacy - as a goodbye tour to end one of the biggest girl groups of our time - there is still something touching here. For all T-Boz might be unimpressed by the idea of a 'throwback', embracing the nostalgia was probably the only way for such a beloved group to say goodbye.

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