It’s hard to fathom from this side of history, but the most groundbreaking girl group of the ’90s was this close to giving up in the span between 1994’s iconic CrazySexyCool and its long-awaited 1999 follow-up. Those five years had been filled with label drama, Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and all sorts of internal turmoil (including Left Eye famously burning down her boyfriend Andre Rison’s house and checking in to rehab). In typically fearless fashion, the trio persevered; the result was Fanmail, an album that delivered some of R&B’s most timeless empowerment anthems and channeled the future with remarkable prescience.
With its binary-code cover and narration from a wise android named Vic-E, there isn't a better snapshot of where things were headed around the turn of the millennium—the era of dial-up internet, The Matrix, and Y2K-bug paranoia. Back then, the internet offered unprecedented human connectivity, a brand-new way to be alone together. But TLC knew nothing was that easy, even as they reveled in the wild, wild west of the World Wide Web: “Just like you, I get lonely too,” T-Boz assured listeners on the title track, catching feelings over an unexpected email. (Yes, “big moods” existed back in ’99.)
But for all its retrofuturism, parts of Fanmail are still just as resonant today: Is there a more enduring archetype than the guy in “No Scrubs” hanging out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride? And on the gently brutal “Unpretty,” the trio grapples with the impossibility of living up to societal beauty standards, a topic as depressingly relevant as ever in the Instagram age. That vulnerability remains one of TLC’s most endearing qualities: They were all about independence and confidence, but they never lied to you.
For all of TLC’s foresight, though, no one could have known back then that Fanmail would be the last album that T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli would record together. Three years later, a tragic car crash in Honduras would take 30-year-old Left Eye’s life. But her spirit shines through in the music, and Fanmail’s message—our need to connect in an isolating world—rings true as ever.