Crazysexycool was one of those records that defined an era. Few records before it combined hip-hop and classic soul songwriting quite as intoxicatingly or gracefully -- the performances and productions were utterly seamless. It would have been difficult to top anyway, but TLC had it doubly bad, since a number of behind-the-scenes problems delayed a sequel for nearly five years. As with any eagerly anticipated record, that follow-up, FanMail, arrived with too many expectations. And initially, it may be disappointing to realize TLC doesn't forge new ground with FanMail, but after a few spins, it settles in that nobody else makes urban soul quite as engaging as this. Not that it was easy to make this record, as the head-spinning list of collaborators indicates. Almost ten producers worked on the record, all trying to replicate the easy, appealing sound of Crazysexycool. And "replicate" is the right word, since there are no new innovations on FanMail, apart from a few lifts from the Timbaland book of tricks. Nevertheless, that may be for the best, since TLC and their army of producers have spent time crafting the songs and productions, turning FanMail into a record that almost reaches the peaks of its predecessor. By the end of the record, it appears that they can do it all -- funky, hip-hop-fueled dance-pop, seductive ballads, and mid-tempo jams -- and they can do it all well. Other groups try to reach these heights, but they don't have the skills or the material to pull it off quite so well. True, the five-year wait felt interminable, and they're now standard-bearers instead of pioneers, but if takes TLC as long to make a sequel to FanMail, so be it -- they have one of the best track records in '90s urban soul.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine