Ten years ago today, the world lost TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes. She lived a crazy life—the "crazy" of her band's sophomore album, CrazySexyCool, referred to her—and died a crazy death. (If you can stomach it, the moments leading up to her fatal car crash are above, excerpted from the VH1 documentary The Last Days of Left Eye, which chronicled 27 days she spent in Honduras before her death.) Left Eye died exactly eight months after 22-year-old Aaliyah and for a period, it felt like the world of R&B was collapsing. The ‘90s had ended two years earlier, but where R&B is concerned, April 25, 2002 is the day they definitively died.
No group summed up ‘90s hip-hop-infused R&B better than TLC. Wisely, few tried. The likes of En Vogue, SWV, Xscape, Jade and, later, Destiny's Child were cut in various levels of jaggedness from the same ‘60s-idealizing cloth, but the day-glo, genre-straddling TLC eschewed showy harmonizing. Instead of blending, the group's members were characterized by their distinct roles. Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins led the group with a gravelly command, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas typically sweetened in the middle-8, and Left Eye rapped.
Her nimble chipmunk voice was alternately clever ("Ain't Too Proud To Beg": "Yeah, I like it when you (kiss sound) both sets of lips, ooooh on the TLC tip"), defiant ("Hat 2 Da Back": "So yo gettin' back to this dude with the foul attitude / Shoot, he made another bad move / Sayin' that girls shouldn't wear baseball caps, he can go take a hike / ‘Cause it's the style I like") and befuddling ("No Scrubs": "So, let me give you somethin' to think about / Inundate your mind with intentions to turn you out / Can't forget the focus on the picture in front of me / You as clear as DVD on digital TV screen / Satisfy my appetite with something spectacular / Check your vernacular").
Left Eye had some failed solo projects that only confirmed her strength as a collaborator. That trait was something she sometimes fought against — at one point, she challenged her fellow TLC members to release solo albums on the same day and see which of the three came out on top. That never transpired, but it was a great idea and bespoke Left Eye's understanding that the performance doesn't stop when you leave the stage. Five years after she burned down her former boyfriend's house, her eyes still lit up when she recounted the blaze she created on an episode of Behind the Music.
With Left Eye, TLC was able to achieve what no girl group had before or has since: a Diamond certification from the RIAA for CrazySexyCool, which signifies a whopping 10 million units shipped. (Their terrible recording contract meant that they ended up each taking home around $90,000 for their mega-success.) Without Left Eye, the group fizzled. Lineup changes typically obliterate girl groups. TLC's loss was especially harsh because of the distinct Left Eye played in the group. It wasn't like Chilli or T-Boz would start spitting bars. When the duo performs today, they still use the name TLC and project images of Left Eye on the screen.
I interviewed Chilli a few years ago when I worked at VH1 (her reality show, What Chilli Wants, ran two seasons on the network), and she told me that she and T-Boz never look at that screen when they perform. She sometimes spoke about Left Eye in the present tense ("Lisa is just...Lisa") and told me that she thinks about her departed friend "all the time." I wondered if the masses that mourned along with her were helpful or hurtful. She told me, interestingly, it was more like the latter:
That was just a weird time, because we wanted to mourn but it was very hard to. We just wanted to mourn by ourselves. When we would go to the mall, even two months later, and people could come up, I wasn't ready to hear, ‘I'm sorry.' I knew they felt it but it was just so devastating and just hard to believe that she was gone. That was like a constant reminder, to hear people say something about it or whatever. So we just stayed in the house, or stayed in the studio. We didn't turn on the TV or anything.
Chilli told me she always corrects people when she's referred to as being "formerly of TLC." She's "Chilli of TLC. Forever." I could tell that has everything to do with the responsibility of preserving the trio's legacy and Chilli confirmed it. Of Left Eye, Chilli said, "She totally lives on through us."
Left Eye would probably agree. In the Last Days clip above, Left Eye's spiritual narration that may have come off as saccharine and ridiculous is weirdly prophetic and totally poignant in light of her untimely passing: "I believe in transformation. I do believe that there is an afterlife. We all share the same space, so no matter what form you may be in — here or not here, you may be dust. We still share the same space. We're all around. When someone passes away, look up. A new star is born." Of course, she already was one of those.