As a painfully awkward tween and teen, I often preferred the company of books and the radio to that of my peers. In a somewhat restrictive (evangelical Christians, where y’all at?) environment, secular music was an almost forbidden indulgence for my younger sisters and me. Of course, we were allowed the squeaky clean offerings of The New Mickey Mouse Club and Kids, Incorporated. But when I tuned into BET’s Video Soul or Yo! MTV Raps, I was transported. I was part of a world where Blackness — where people who looked and maybe even talked like I did — were the norm, not the exception or the token. I found myself in music, in spaces where my perfect spelling tests and proclivity toward writing were seemingly rewarded.
The music that most impacted me from age 11 on was R&B, specifically the new jack swing genre and the music that followed it. A direct result of the joining of still-expanding Hip Hop music and post-synthesizer R&B music of the early-to-mid 1980′s, new jack swing fueled my most vibrant memories of summer camp, dancing until I sweated profusely, and (I can’t believe I’m admitting this) having a Jheri curl that was not properly moisturized. I sang along with Bobby Brown’s “Roni,” tried to master the dance moves from BBD’s “Poison” video, and made all kinds of inquisitions as to why Aaron Hall’s “Don’t Be Afraid” seemed so damn rapey. (Because it’s a Rape Carol, that’s why.)
In 1991, a song called “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” hit BET, and my world was forever changed by three young Black women known as TLC. Initially, I (of course, as a super sheltered tween) had zero idea what “two inches or a yard/ rock hard or if it’s saggin’” even meant. But, once I learned, I was simultaneously scandalized and excited. These were Black women talking frankly about sex, and not just singing, but rapping as well. Black women who were not Whitney or Janet (her janet. album had yet to drop!) talking about being in control of their pleasure and the kind(s) of partner(s) they wanted. And they wore condoms on their not-tight-at-all clothes. They were dressed more like Another Bad Creation than they were The Good Girls. TLC hit me like only a true pop phenomenon could: hard as hell, with deep-reaching influence to boot. But there were “problems” with them, of course, if you asked some folks.
I didn’t understand the controversy. T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli were grown (21 could have been a lifetime away for me) women who talked about the issues relevant to them. Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip was the point where I learned about Tawana Brawley, and what it means to believe the victim. (See the aforementioned album, track 8, “His Story”) TLC’s choice to wear condoms on their clothes and talk about their pleasure was the kind of thing I needed to combat the programming I got in my Christian day school. A song like “Hat 2 Da Back” blew my mind. Left Eye’s rhymes about a dude policing her femininity combined with the hook ending, “That’s the kinda girl I am” affirmed me in all my awkwardness. I had to be myself, right? That wasn’t exactly the prevalent message in mainstream media or media focused specifically on Black folks.
And though I had no clue what “Baby-Baby-Baby” was actually about, I loved the video. I found myself singing along quite often, and when I finally realized what the line “I like plenty conversation with my sex” actually meant…? Ooh, wee. I further recognized the awesomeness of the song. How often can we say there are mainstream (read: via a major record label and/ or one of its imprints) songs discussing sex in a direct way from the perspective of a young woman of color? With some kink thrown in, too? Exactly my point. Amaaaaaazing! I learned from TLC’s most popular singles that I could choose for myself exactly the kind(s) of sexual encounters I wanted to have, create healthy boundaries for myself, and be fly without compromising my intergrity. As I sit here going through the TLC Vevo channel, I am reminded that there’s nothing quite like listening to the whole album from front to back — even the songs I currently can’t believe I liked.
I won’t ruin these jams (or is that jamz?) with too much lyrical analysis. Go to Spotify or Rdio and listen to these albums to get an idea of what I’m talking about. Stay tuned for part 2, about TLC’s second album, CrazySexyCool