Here’s a test: Name five TLC hits that feature the rhymes of the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes.
Let’s see, there’s the group’s racy debut single “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” the cautionary jam “What About Your Friends.” “Waterfalls,” of course, and . . .
That’s it. Most of the record-breaking act’s smashes — from “Creep” to “Unpretty” — don’t include Lopes.
But Lopes played a pivotal role in TLC: Her tongue-twisting raps and headline-grabbing image made the group relevant to the hip-hop generation. And while her voice lacked the kind of authoritative heft that characterizes the best rappers, she appeared on hits by ‘N Sync and Lil’ Kim and her rhymes openly chronicled her struggles to make peace with her often-troubled life. Lopes’ lyrics are as germane to the life experiences of many young black women as the works of Tupac, Nas and Jay-Z are to those of young black men.
TLC debuted in 1992 at a pivotal moment for black music, a time when many R&B acts were no longer trying to mainstream their image in order to attain crossover success. These artists, empowered by the wide-reaching success of streetwise rappers, decided to dress as if they were hanging with friends and perform lyrics in their everyday vernacular. In 1991 and 1992, four such acts arrived on the scene and went on to change the look and tenor of black pop in ways that are still as relevant today: R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci and TLC.
What set this trio of Atlanta-based women apart from contemporaries like En Vogue and SWV is that they had a rapper in the group. Lopes gave the group hip-hop credibility at a time when rap was setting the aesthetic agenda for black music.
While Lopes’ rhymes weren’t always on the album versions of songs, she was often featured on the remixes — alternative versions of the tunes — that were played on urban radio stations. There are rap mixes of many of TLC’s biggest hits: “Baby Baby Baby,” “Creep,” “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty.” This explains why many black fans see Lopes as a more central part of the trio.
Lopes functioned much as the animated Flava Flav did in Public Enemy. On one level, she provided a sort of comic relief. But there were deeper meanings often lurking behind her often cartoonish image, oversized fluorescent clothing and wearing condom packages as a fashion accessory. As with the trickster figures that run throughout African and African-American folklore, there was a message in what some perceived as madness.
Lopes often served as the moral voice of TLC. Where the song “Creep” romanticizes cheating in a relationship, Lopes’ rap on the remix focuses on the sometimes dire consequences of extracurricular love affairs. She calls herself “the Surgeon General,” warns of HIV and the hardships of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and rhymes: “Creepin’ is the No. 1 item on the chart/Ripping families apart/The leading cause of a broken heart.”
Such complex messages about sexuality make up another aspect that distinguished TLC from its contemporaries. Unlike today’s pop princesses, the women of TLC never tried to present themselves as virgins. In fact, on their first single, they boasted of needing it in the morning and the middle of the night.
But, again, Lopes’ rhymes raised questions about sexual and emotional responsibility. On a cover version of the Time’s “Get It Up,” Lopes raps to a lover: “Don’t touch me in the morning and walk away/As I commence to yawning/[You] commence to stay.”
Throughout her career, Lopes’ personal experiences frequently popped up in her lyrics. The artist, who had a long-term off-and-on relationship with the NFL’s Andre Rison, made references to taking it to “the end zone” and making love on “the 50-yard line.”
And after the infamous incident in which Lopes torched the house she shared with Rison following a bout of domestic abuse, her rhymes began to suggest a longing for understanding and spiritual peace. “Only my faith can undo/The many chances I blew/To bring my life to anew,” she says on the No. 1 hit “Waterfalls.”
Her solo album, “Supernova,” which was not released in the States, also shows a preoccupation with spirituality, on the songs “Head to the Sky,” “The Universal Quest” and “A New Star is Born.” It’s not a great record — Lopes’ rhymes and the beats often sound a little dated — but it continues to explore her life in detail, from the coming-of-age tune “The Block Party” to thoughts of having a menage-a-trois on “True Confessions.”
This willingness to openly discuss her personal life in lyrics is what endeared her to fans and makes her, even in death, a somewhat controversial figure. Because of all we knew of her life, Lopes isn’t easy to put on a pedestal. Her mistakes made headlines and, because of her lyrics, we can’t forget them.
Earlier in her career, Lopes struggled with alcohol abuse. And one of her raps says: “It’s been since October/Since the last time I was sober.”
Many of her lyrics also evoke the house-burning. On one tune, she talks about “blowing up spots”; and on another she says, “I’ll be the one to blame as the flames keep rising to the top.”
Of course, copping to and even boasting of former crimes and transgressions is a hip-hop convention, but somehow it’s viewed differently with Lopes. This is similar to the way that the excesses of male rock stars — from throwing TVs out of hotel windows to abusing spouses — are often wiped away like paid debts, but Lopes’ house-burning incident unfairly became her defining media moment.
This helps explain why the reaction to Lopes’ death has been quite different in tone to that of Aaliyah, who died eight months to the day before Lopes. Aaliyah was perceived as a “good girl,” even though that image was constructed largely by overlooking her teen marriage to R. Kelly and the sexual suggestiveness of her lyrics. Lopes, on the other hand, demanded we know the breadth of the woman she was: warts, bruises, heartaches and all. She was complicated like a Tupac. But she was always true.
This is what made her important to her group and to black music in general. For 10 years, she was a female trailblazer who risked being dubbed “crazy” and a “bad girl” in order to represent the truth of her life.