TLC's 'CrazySexyCool' at 20: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

TLC CrazySexyCool album cover

TLC CrazySexyCool album cover

Technically, they should’ve called it CoolCrazySexy. After all, each word in the title of this Atlanta R&B trio’s sophomore album corresponds to one of the group’s members, just like the letters T, L, and C.

Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins was undeniably cool. Rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was known to act a little crazy. Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas took the already-high sexiness quotient up a notch. If they’d wanted keep things nice and neat, TLC would have stuck to that order. Nice and neat wasn’t really their thing, though, and besides, CrazySexyCool had a better ring to it. When the album hit shelves on Nov. 15, 1994 -- 20 years ago today -- no one sweated that minor detail.

Instead, fans bought CDs by the truckload, keeping the album on the Billboard 200 for more than two years and making TLC the first girl group to score a diamond LP, signifying sales of more than 10 million. (To date, CrazySexyCool has moved 23 million units, a record for American girl groups. Worldwide, only the Spice Girls have done better, and they had five people, so it’s apples and crumpets.)

The success of CrazySexyCool was due to the disc’s singles. All four landed in the top five of the Hot 100, and two reached No. 1. One of those chart-toppers, “Waterfalls,” stands as one of the decade's greatest songs, and in so far as it used hip-hop, soul, and a big-budget CGI video to sell social messages concerning inner-city drug abuse and the spread of HIV/AIDS, it’s ‘94 to the core. It’s also timeless.

“Waterfalls” is one of the few CrazySexyCool tracks that truly is TLC -- as in all three ladies blending their distinct voices as they had on their 1992 debut, Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip. A lot had happened in the nearly three years since these sexy tomboys in the baggy jeans bedazzled with condoms arrived on the scene. Most notably, Left Eye had been convicted of arson after nearly burning down then-boyfriend Andre Rison’s mansion, and her court-mandated rehab overlapped with the CrazySexyCool sessions.

Lopes’ raps are notably absent on many of these tracks, and without their toughest, funniest member, T-Boz and Chilli had to reinvent themselves. Working mostly with the same stable of producers they’d used on TLC Tip -- Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, most notably -- T-Boz and Chilli got down on some sultry bedroom jams, scoring big with “Creep,” “Diggin’ on You,” and “Red Light Special.”

It’s mostly via the intro and interlude tracks (there are five of ‘em, this being a ‘90s album and all) that TLC puts forth the album’s loose concept: To some extent, all women are crazy, sexy, and cool. It’s just a question of how those elements balance out at any given moment. With CrazySexyCool, TLC got the ratio just right, and even though the follow-up, 1999’s FanMail, became the group’s first and only No. 1 album, this is the one people come back to.

Read on to get our track-by-track take on this mighty fine specimen of ‘90s R&B.

“Intro-Lude”: The first voice heard on CrazySexyCool belongs to Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, and in an easy 1:03, the “five-foot freak” gets the party started, name-checking Left Eye, Chili and T-Boz, in that title-appropriate order.

“Creep”: The cool and jazzy horn samples give a subdued feel to what’s essentially a song about fighting fire with fire. T-Boz has herself a philandering man, and rather than leave him, she goes elsewhere for her carnal needs. With her hyper-laid-back rasp, T-Boz makes it sound like no big deal. “Never go astray,” she says, as if to congratulate herself on sticking around, though the sexiness of the tune is a constant reminder of what’s really going down.

“Kick Your Game”: If you wanted to get with TLC in ’94, you had to bring your A-game. In the verses, as a squishy bass riff primes the room for grinding, T-Boz and Chili break it down for the fellas: Say something clever, get a little action. Then, in one of those verses that reminds everyone why she was so great, Left Eye raps out a dialogue between herself and a male suitor who doesn’t pass the cleverness test.

“Diggin’ on You”: It’s that fresh feeling of new love, and it’s courtesy of Babyface, checking in for the first of his three writer-producer credits. Both verses begin with T-Boz chilling on a summer afternoon, sipping on some Kool-Aid and minding her own. When a smooth-talking dude enters the picture, she tries to brush him off, but he kicks just enough game to close the deal. So does Babyface, dialing in a smoove beat and synth bed just slinky enough to read R&B, not AC.

“Case of the Fake People”: That interpolation of the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” in the first verse tells the tale. It’s a kiss-off to the kinds of leeches and hangers-on that come with celebrity, and had Dallas Austin given the tune to another group, it might have sounded nasty. T-Boz and Chili float nice and easy over Austin’s nod-along groove, and their steadiness suggests they’d gained the confidence to start pruning people from their lives.

“CrazySexyCool-Interlude”: In the first of four such segues, T-Boz tells men everywhere what kind of woman they should be looking for: She’s funny, freaky, and game to hang with the boys. Basically, she’s TLC condensed into a single (presumably single-headed) body, and that’s an idea producer and guest chatterer Sean “Puffy” Combs is way into. “Cool,” he says. “Rock on.”

“Red Light Special”: On his second track, Babyface facilitates babymaking. “Red Light Special” is nearly as sexy as “Creep,” and since it’s not about doing anything shady behind anyone’s back, it’s got a certain sweetness, even when T-Boz is talking about a “southern route” that’s got nothing to do with I-85.

“Waterfalls”: The most important word -- acronym, really -- is one T-Boz doesn’t even sing. “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why,” she sings in the second verse, “three letters took him to his final resting place.” Everyone knew she meant HIV, and everyone appreciated the non-peachiness of both that verse and the one preceding it, all about a son breaking his mother’s heart by getting caught up in the drug game. These are problems society still hasn’t solved, and mixing brassy old-school Southern soul with hip-hop, TLC issue a timeless warning colored with hope, like things might actually get better.

“Intermission-lude”: Just in case you forgot the title of the album…

“Let’s Do It Again”: This filler track is in serious need of a Left Eye rap. That might have given it some passion or humor -- something to save it from becoming the nice-enough nuzzling jam that it is.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend”: The production team -- Puffy, Austin and Chucky Thompson -- do a decent job of recreating the funky weirdness of Prince’s original, a standout cut on his funky and weird Sign o’ the Times. T-Boz has the voice to approximate Prince’s warped, feminized vocal, but even so, this is an odd choice for a cover. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is about a man trying to get closer to a woman by imagining himself as her BFF, and sung from the female perspective, “girlfriend” takes on the more common meaning of love interest. The oddness works, though; mark this the craziest, sexiest, coolest track.

“Sexy-Interlude”: Chili needs Puff to give her a hand with something. There’s lots of low talking and heavy breathing. It’s not going where you think.

“Take Our Time”: While virtually interchangeable with “Let’s Do It Again,” this slow jam gets the edge by virtue of the oh-so-‘90s keyboard line that snakes its way through the background.

“Can I Get a Witness-Interlude”: The final interlude stars Busta Rhymes, who testifies about wanting a lady who’s “ready to rip somebody’s face off for her man.” His ideal woman is sexy, too, and also cool enough to “get down with the crew.” He wants that TLC hybrid being Puff is intrigued by a few tracks earlier.

“Switch”: Who does he think he is, the guy giving T-Boz gruff in this “Mr. Big Stuff”-sampling anti-commitment anthem? She’s made it clear she’s not looking for anything serious, but dude’s all up in her grill, asking who she’s been hanging with and what time she got home. Maybe she ought to put it to him like Left Eye does in her rap: “Just as quick as I get in / I’ll drop ‘em in a minute / like the dollaz / in my pocket, Speedy Gonzalez / couldn’t stop the way I spin it.”

“Sumthin’ Wicked This Way Comes”: Like a muddier, murkier “Waterfalls,” the disc’s closer is message song with no real message. It’s about the generally sorry state of the world, and in his intro verse, a then-unknown A-Town rhymer referred to as “Dre from Outkast” in the liner notes takes on everything from gang violence to Michael Jackson selling out. The future Andre 3000 gets the better of Lopes, who ends the disc with some new-age-y uplift that never takes flight.


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