In the summer of 1992, TLC released its third single, What About Your Friends. Its accompanying video opens with a dimly lit fashion show in which stone-faced women in curve-clinging clothes stoically walk a runway, before a big red "NOT" flashes across the screen. The next shot features a host of women in big, baggy denim and rainbow-laced combat boots. It's then we meet TLC, engulfed in bright, bold Cross Colours looks — their suspenders dotted with condoms. "What about your friends," its chorus booms, "Will they stand their ground, will they let you down again? What about your friends, are they gonna be lowdown? Will they ever be around? Or will they turn their backs on you?"
This theme of friendship — of evaluating the quality of the bonds we share with one another and working to strengthen them — has endured in TLC's music over the past 25 years. It forms the heart of Way Back, the first single debuted off the now-duo's forthcoming (as yet untitled) final record, due for release on 30 June.
Featuring some thick throwback synths and an assist from g-funk maestro Snoop Dogg, Way Back is a sonic time warp to the group's 90s heyday. And in those iconic, evocative voices, we find the celebration of friendship we've come to cherish from TLC: "Like James Brown and Michael J, Like them high school parties, Some things don't ever change, Yeah, you and me, We go way back."
Though Way Back is a sunny single, it's not without the group's genuine sense of reflection. "Don't you ever think, Back on all that other shit we went through," Chilli asks. To TLC, friendship isn't all of the easy memories — how could it be? Even before Lisa's death in 2002, the group was concerned with what it really means to be there for someone. What About Your Friends was the work of enlightened 21-year-olds attempting to navigate superstardom without sacrificing their realness. At the end of the decade, the trio released FanMail, named in honor of the fans who sent them letters during their turbulent five-year hiatus (which began when the group filed for bankruptcy in 1995, and ended after a highly public feud was resolved). FanMail is prolific in its techno-anxiety. Released at the dawn of Y2K, the album considers how digital communication might fundamentally alter relationships as we know them.
So it's unsurprising that TLC's return single is a celebration of friendship. It's unsurprising that the group is asking its fans to help name its final (final!) body of music. It's unsurprising that TLC chose to fund this record entirely through Kickstarter. It's unsurprising that the duo met its $150,000 goal in just two days, and it's unsurprising that fans contributed an additional $300,000 to its efforts. It's unsurprising that one of the Kickstarter rewards was a sleepover with T-Boz, and frankly, it's unsurprising that Katy Perry paid five grand for it. Because these are artists who care deeply about personal connections and true, lasting friendships — with each other, and with their fans. If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends, sang the Spice Girls. Sure. But TLC? Forget my lover, if you want to be my friend, you've gotta put that work in.
Text Emily Manning
Still via YouTube