Contemporary R&B, which began to emerge with Mary J. Blige's rise in the early '90s, separates itself from classic R&B by its embrace of hip-hop rhythms. It's a solid combination of sonics and attitude, but also a limiting one. After all, no one stays 18 forever, and some young artists (Kelly Price and Faith Evans, for example) address more mature subject matter simply by toning down the hip-hop elements. However, on Fan Mail, TLC proves you can strongly balance both maturity and insolence.
Ever since the Atlanta trio -- T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli -- released their debut, Ooooooohhh ... On the TLC Tip, in 1992, they've owned the anti-En Vogue turf. They've also distanced themselves from the limitations of hip-hop posturing. Even though men like Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, Babyface, and Organized Noize did much of the album's writing and producing, the sentiments in TLC's songs feel like their own.
The group's members have obviously grown up since 1994's multiplatinum CrazySexyCool. Left Eye has evolved from an alcoholic tomboy to a stylish diva, upstaging Li'l Kim and Missy Elliott on Kim's "Not Tonight." On Fan Mail, they critique the rampant materialism in black youth culture in "The Vic-E," an interlude in which a dispassionate voice-over -- similar to the style used by A Tribe Called Quest -- decries the fetishism for Prada and Versace.
Still, they're not beyond the sorority-girl playfulness of "Silly Ho," which arrogantly details their financial independence (i.e., they aren't for sale) over jittery beats in a crowded time signature. "No Scrubs" playfully sets the bar for men whom they'll acknowledge, but "Unpretty" aggressively deals with the ongoing problems of self-image among young women. Fan Mail closes with "Don't Pull Out on Me Yet," which recalls the sultry feel of classic Southern soul, a mix of sassy and savvy that enlivens much of the entire album.
Despite the success of these women's debut, it's still been relatively easy to see TLC as lightweights. With Fan Mail, though, they've solidified their position as one of the most important R&B groups of the '90s. Now maybe all the glitzy En Vogue wannabes will be aiming to be the anti-TLC.
-- Martin Johnson
The official line on Suicaine Gratifaction is that this is Paul Westerberg's grown-up album, the one in which he finally buries the past and puts the glorious wreckage of the Replacements behind him for good.
True enough, as far as it goes. There are several piano-based songs on the record, and we all know that the piano is a grown-up instrument. What the story line misses, though, is that Westerberg has always written grown-up songs. Even in the fits of juvenilia that produced songs like "Waitress in the Sky," he was at heart a grumpy old man. "Here Comes a Regular" wasn't a grown-up song?
The truth is that a straight line runs from the earliest Replacements work to Suicaine Gratifaction, to wit: Westerberg's conviction that every song carries a certain fragile spirit, a spirit that is easily warped or broken by too much, well, work. The achievement of Suicaine Gratifaction isn't that it fully expresses the potential of one of the finest songwriters in rock, but rather that it seizes that potential and suspends it. We're given a series of sketches and asked not to complete them, but to accept them as finished works in and of themselves. It's easy to imagine the executives at Capitol listening to this record for the first time and screaming, "We paid how much for this guy? This is a fucking demo!"
It hardly matters at this point in Westerberg's career if we agree with him or not. He's paying for his belief out of his own pocket -- Suicaine contains at least three songs ("Best Thing That Never Happened," "Born for Me," and "Whatever Makes You Happy") that, had they bowed even slightly toward popular tastes, would have ruled alternative radio for weeks. Instead, a song like "Born for Me," probably the most intense expression of longing Westerberg has ever penned, features not only the lovely harmony vocals of Shawn Colvin, but also a great number of thudded bass notes that must make accomplished, struggling musicians want to smash things. Beauty set among chaos -- the Replacements creed remains fully intact.
Like the Kinks' Ray Davies, Westerberg is a songwriter's songwriter but also his own worst enemy. He shares with Davies the same overfondness for clever wordplay and suspiciously facile melodies. They have the same predilection for self-absorption and self-destruction. But both are redeemed by their self-lacerating wit, their candor, and their almost painful need to communicate emotion, not a common trait among rock 'n' roll snots. "Am I past my prime, or was that just a pose?" Westerberg asks in the countrified opening track, "It's a Wonderful Lie." No pat, grown-up answers. Just questions. And a captivating art.
-- Brian Alcorn