August 8, 2022

In The Quantity Ones, I’m reviewing each single #1 single within the historical past of the Billboard Sizzling 100, beginning with the chart’s starting, in 1958, and dealing my means up into the current.

The Lilith Honest, Sarah McLachlan’s touring pageant, had an enormously profitable three-year run on the finish of the ’90s, and it most likely had an even bigger impact on in style music, and on in style tradition, than most individuals had been keen to confess on the time. I by no means went to a Lilith Honest as a result of I received the sense, early on, that it wasn’t for me. The primary Lilith Honest lineup appeared to revolve round a sure kind, the proverbial white woman with an acoustic guitar enjoying folks songs in a coffeehouse: McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole, Jewel, Meredith Brooks. (Fiona Apple was on that first tour, however I didn’t but notice how a lot I might come to like Fiona Apple.) I noticed that lineup, and I used to be out. I most likely made some shitty high-school jokes about it, too. This was my commonplace teenage-dickhead modus operandi — making enjoyable of the stuff that didn’t cater on to my pursuits.

Till my buddy Jessica Hopper wrote this oral historical past a couple of years in the past, I don’t assume I’d ever actually thought of how audacious that first Lilith Honest was. On the time — and doubtless now, too — the few feminine artists who had been allowed onto rock radio had been thought of one another’s competitors. With Lilith, McLachlan and the opposite organizers did one thing about that, turning the touring ’90s pageant right into a type of assertion of solidarity. The organizers knew that the primary yr of the pageant was too monochromatic, and so they labored to deal with that in later years. I keep in mind briefly contemplating going to the second Lilith Honest in 1998 to see Missy Elliott and Liz Phair and Luscious Jackson and Erykah Badu, however I by no means pulled the set off. I had this concept in my head of what the Lilith Honest was, and I’d determined that this concept was not the place I needed to be.

Looking back, that complete Lilith Honest scene introduced plenty of consideration to plenty of voices who most likely by no means would’ve gotten an opportunity to shine. Lilith artists like McLachlan, Jewel, and Paula Cole had enormous hits within the late ’90s. However the largest and finest hit that mirrored the cultural and musical values of the Lilith Honest got here from a bunch that by no means had something to do with the pageant, one which labored in a complete completely different enviornment. In what would show to be their remaining massive second as pop stars, TLC got here out with an totally attractive acoustic pop tune about magnificence requirements and self-image. That tune by no means reached the identical iconic standing as previous TLC chart-toppers like “Waterfalls” or “No Scrubs,” but it surely would possibly simply be my favourite factor that the group ever did.

“Unpretty” got here out of a second of real self-doubt and hardship. Throughout TLC’s pop-chart reign, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, the de facto TLC chief who at all times appeared so unflappably chill, was consistently checking out and in of hospitals, being handled for sickle cell anemia. Someday, T-Boz was sitting in a resort room after a hospital keep. She was feeling low due to her therapies and since her boyfriend had simply left her. (She’s by no means recognized the boyfriend in query, but it surely was most likely Jodeci’s Dalvin DeGrate. Dalvin and T-Boz are buddies now, however the members of Jodeci did not deal with the feminine R&B stars of the ’90s very effectively.)

Speaking to Billboard years later, T-Boz laid out the scene: “Whenever you get out the hospital, you are feeling so weak and frail and ugly. I had all these IV marks and bruises in every single place, and I used to be simply actually skinny. When he left, I used to be watching [an episode of] Ricki Lake that evening, the place these males had been calling girls fats pigs, so I used to be already emotional.” T-Boz’s response was to seize a pen and a pad from the hotel-room desk and to jot down a poem. The poem was known as “Unpretty.” (For these protecting rating, meaning “Unpretty” was the second late-’90s R&B chart-topper written in response to the trashy daytime discuss reveals of the period, following Brandy and Monica’s Springer-inspired “The Boy Is Mine.”)

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On the time, T-Boz was writing plenty of poetry; it was a means for her to deal with every little thing that she had happening. In 1999, she printed these poems in a guide known as Ideas. When T-Boz confirmed her “Unpretty” poem to Dallas Austin, TLC’s common producer, he liked it, and he tailored it right into a tune. In that very same Billboard article, Austin says, “On the time, I used to be listening to plenty of folks and different artists like Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos. I used to be making an attempt to determine a approach to bridge that into TLC’s music, as a result of I knew that will make them completely different [compared to] all people else. By having an acoustic-driven pop tune, that will take them to a complete ‘nother place they haven’t been earlier than.”

The concept of a TLC observe that goals for Ani DiFranco/Tori Amos territory solely appears unusual should you’ve by no means heard “Unpretty.” With “Unpretty,” the group fully pulls it off. The tune works so effectively partly as a result of it’s so direct. There’s no flowery pretension to T-Boz’s lyrics. As a substitute, she spends the tune working via conflicted emotions with an ease that’s nearly conversational: “I attempted alternative ways, but it surely’s all the identical/ On the finish of the day, I’ve myself guilty/ I’m simply trippin’.” (That “I’m simply trippin’” bit kills me. Right here’s this girl citing all these raw-nerve feelings however nonetheless reminding herself to not take every little thing too significantly, the way in which actual individuals do after they’re not absolutely keen to confess how down they’re.)

T-Boz’s “Unpretty” refrain is all concerning the type of validation that may solely come from internal confidence, which could be so elusive for thus many people. TLC sing about hair extensions and nostril jobs and MAC cosmetics, and so they don’t degrade any of these choices, however additionally they make the purpose that you simply’ve received to have the ability to “look inside you.” Among the tune appears to be T-Boz speaking to her boyfriend: “Why do I look to all this stuff to maintain you cheerful?/ Perhaps eliminate you after which I’ll get again to me.” However “Unpretty” isn’t a relationship tune. It’s nearly totally inside. Perhaps T-Boz isn’t even addressing a boyfriend there; perhaps it’s simply the voice in her head. Perhaps T-Boz is admitting that she’s the one who makes herself really feel so rattling unpretty.

Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez doesn’t seem on “Unpretty,” although she did rap a verse on an “Unpretty” remix that’s constructed from a pattern of Dennis Edwards’ “Don’t Look Any Additional,” a 1984 single that peaked at #72. The primary model of “Unpretty” is T-Boz and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas going backwards and forwards about being caught on their very own perceived flaws. All through the tune, T-Boz and Chilli acknowledge the concept that individuals assume they’re engaging. T-Boz: “I used to be advised I used to be lovely, however what does that imply to you?” Chilli: “My outsides look cool, my insides look blue.” It doesn’t matter that different individuals assume they’re fairly. They nonetheless really feel that very same inadequacy.

T-Boz’s supply on “Unpretty” simply kills me. The observe turns her ordinary languid slide into one thing else. She nonetheless sounds easy on “Unpretty,” however she lets some hoarse rawness into her voice, a slight tweak that adjustments the entire feeling of the tune. On the finish of the observe, T-Boz lets out fun, and I’ve at all times questioned about that snort. It’s not exuberant, precisely. I’d name it a tragic cackle if the time period “unhappy cackle” didn’t appear like such a contradiction in phrases. I hear that snort as T-Boz’s means of reassuring us when the tune’s coming to its shut — her sign that the mere act of singing the tune has made her really feel slightly higher. I hope it did.

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Dallas Austin’s music for “Unpretty” is twinkly and reassuring. “Unpretty” doesn’t actually sound like an R&B tune in any respect, besides within the vocals. As a substitute, Austin goes full Lilith Honest, surrounding T-Boz and Chilli’s voices with a martial drumline and with strummy acoustic guitars. There’s some ragged power-chord stuff in there, too, and a fast solo because the tune reaches its conclusion. (That guitar comes from Tomi Martin, a session musician who performed on plenty of OutKast information and who toured with plenty of massive stars, together with TLC.) Austin additionally layers Debra Killings’ backing vocals, making a kind of supportive choir that appears to be lending a sympathetic ear to the lead vocals. The entire thing simply kills me. It’s so attractive, so swish, so susceptible, so actual.

Of their basic incarnation, TLC actually solely lasted for 3 albums. These three albums got here years aside, and so they all landed at vastly completely different factors of R&B’s evolution within the ’90s. All of these information match their respective moments superbly, and all of them appeared to adapt effortlessly to altering climates. The group’s precise historical past was chaotic and irritating, however you couldn’t hear that chaos or frustration of their music. As a substitute, TLC simply saved rising and creating. For me, “Unpretty” is the last word instance of that. It’s TLC tapping right into a sound that existed far outdoors their wheelhouse and completely nailing it. “Unpretty” isn’t a pop group reaching for a stylish type. It’s them utilizing new muscle tissue to say one thing that they didn’t really feel able to say earlier than. I get a lump in my throat each time I hear it.

The “Unpretty” video, from director Paul Hunter, is a little bit of a large number. It reveals the members of TLC drenched in eye-bleeding colour, amidst a number of the ugliest CGI that the late ’90s needed to provide. On the one hand, I like how the spaceship-R&B period got here to have an effect on songs that undoubtedly don’t sound like something that ought to be performed in a spaceship. Left Eye had the concept for TLC to signal out the tune’s lyrics in ASL, which is cool, and the members of TLC look luminous — a pleasant approach to acknowledge that the individuals who really feel unpretty most likely aren’t that means in actual life. However, the tune deserves one thing much less gaudy, and the assorted storylines all play out within the clumsiest, most blatant methods. However the video isn’t what defines “Unpretty.” The tune does that simply wonderful by itself.

“Unpretty” shouldn’t have been the tip, however that’s what it was. TLC’s FanMail album went platinum six instances over, totally on the energy of “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty.” The group’s subsequent single was the ballad “Expensive Lie,” which was tailored from one other one in all T-Boz’s poems, this time by Babyface. It peaked at #51. “Foolish Ho,” one other FanMail observe, was solely ever launched as a promotional single, but it surely nonetheless made it to #59 on airplay alone.

By the point that “Unpretty” reached #1, TLC had been nearing the tip of their FanMail tour, and so they had been falling aside. Left Eye had briefly stop the group earlier than they recorded FanMail, and he or she was at all times midway out the door. T-Boz and Chilli would complain in interviews about Left Eye being a flake, and Left Eye would shoot proper again at them. Two months after “Unpretty” reached #1, Left Eye wrote a letter to Leisure Weekly difficult her bandmates to make a triple album, with all of them doing their very own solo work, to see who was actually one of the best. She additionally known as herself “the artistic power behind TLC.”

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As soon as the FanMail album cycle ended, Left Eye began making a solo album. It didn’t go effectively. Her single “The Block Occasion,” which is really fairly dangerous, was a top-20 hit within the UK, but it surely missed the Sizzling 100 fully. Her album Supernova received a European launch in 2001, but it surely by no means got here out within the US. By that time, Left Eye was arguably greater within the UK than within the US. She’d already rapped a guest-verse on the previous Spice Lady Melanie C’s 2000 single “By no means Be The Identical Once more,” which topped the UK charts and didn’t seem on the Sizzling 100.

Left Eye patched issues up with the opposite two members of TLC, and the group began to file their FanMail comply with up. In 2001, they sang “Waterfalls” collectively at MTV’s Twentieth-anniversary particular. It might be their final efficiency collectively. In 2002, throughout a go to to Honduras, Left Eye crashed her rented automobile, and he or she died on the age of 30. It’s inconceivable to say what such a gifted, magnetic weirdo would’ve been capable of accomplish later in her profession.

TLC determined to complete the album that they’d began making, and that album, 3D, got here out later in 2002. 3D went platinum, but it surely didn’t promote wherever close to in addition to TLC’s earlier information. Lead single “Lady Discuss” peaked at #28. Two years later, T-Boz and Chilli starred within the actuality competitors present R U The Lady. UPN promoted the present as a search to seek out Left Eye’s substitute in TLC, however the group members stated that they had been solely on the lookout for somebody to carry out and file with TLC as soon as, to not turn out to be a full-time substitute member. They knew that no person may ever change Left Eye. Tiffany “Krispy” Baker, the present’s winner, appeared on one TLC observe, 2005’s “I Wager.” It didn’t chart.

T-Boz and Chilli’s private lives remained tumultuous after Left Eye’s loss of life. T-Boz married after which divorced West Coast rapper Mack 10, taking out a restraining order on him after their breakup. Chilli broke up with Dallas Austin and spent some time courting Usher; she impressed a bunch of songs that can ultimately seem on this column. In 2013, T-Boz and Chilli appeared, as TLC, on J. Cole’s single “Crooked Smile,” which peaked at #27. (Cole’s highest-charting single, the 2021 21 Savage/Morray collab “My Life,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

2013 was additionally when VH1 aired the made-for-cable biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story. The film was a rankings hit, and TLC gave a couple of performances with Lil Mama, the rapper who’d performed Left Eye within the movie, standing in for Left Eye herself. (Lil Mama’s two highest-charting singles, 2007’s “Lip Gloss” and the 2008 T-Ache/Chris Brown collab “Shawty Get Free,” each peaked at #10. “Lip Gloss” is a 9, and “Shawty Get Free” is a 6.)

T-Boz and Chilli have saved performing as TLC within the years since. Additionally they used Kickstarter to lift the cash to file their 2013 album 20. Simply final month, TLC performed Glastonbury. I hope they’re each doing nice now, even when TLC doesn’t actually appear to be TLC with out Left Eye. If I had been them, I’m certain I’d be doing the very same factor. Of their day, TLC did a complete lot of unbelievable issues, and the group’s surviving members should coast on these unbelievable issues for the remainder of their lives.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Right here’s video of Taylor Swift enjoying a solo-acoustic “Unpretty” cowl at a 2011 present:

(Taylor Swift will seem on this column an important many instances.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Right here’s Kelly Clarkson singing a distant cowl of “Unpretty” on a 2020 quarantine-era episode of her discuss present:

(Kelly Clarkson will ultimately seem on this column.)

The Quantity Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The Historical past Of Pop Music is out 11/15 through Hachette Books. You possibly can pre-order it right here.