The first time I saw Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, I gasped. She opened the video for TLC's first single, "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," wearing baggy orange overalls and a sculptural lime-green hat, like an extra on Sesame Street. I was twelve, and in place of words there was only a feeling, of queerness and innocence, of an indefinable cool that ran through me. It was Left Eye's image that would eventually inspire me to buy oversized JNCO jeans and orange rave pants that zipped off into shorts, each pant leg flaring wider than my entire waist. I countered my mother's dismay with "It's the 'Waterfalls' girls!" It was that 1995 earworm that propelled them into the best-selling American girl group of all time, the first number one song on the Billboard charts to reference the AIDS epidemic, and the excuse you gave your mom for going to school dressed like a parachute. That song, like Left Eye herself, has morphed into a symbol, an object simultaneously celebrated, mythologized, and distorted to a gleaming pulp.
That song, "Waterfalls," came back into the mainstream recently, but its setup left me feeling cold. It functioned as a punch line in We're The Millers, the 2013 road-trip comedy about a pseudo-family's attempt to smuggle pot across the Mexican border. To celebrate narrowly escaping border patrol agents, David, a small-time pot dealer played by Jason Sudeikis, turns on the RV's radio, cueing TLC's "Waterfalls." Turns out Kenny, the dweeby teenager, knows every word to Left Eye's rap. "I seen a rainbow yesterday / But too many storms have come and gone / Leaving a trace of not one God given ray," he sings with suburban gusto, eyes shut, hands gesticulating, stunning the RV's occupants — and the viewers at the theater — to silence. Everyone laughs because the white boy can rap! But beneath that simmered a more menacing subtext: Left Eye's voice reduced to a rap joke for white people.
Her unique voice, by turns infantile and knowing, was a nimble instrument. Its nasal lilt was perfectly suited for Nickelodeon's All That theme song, but it also held up to rap's more confrontational conventions. Take her verse on Lil' Kim's "Not Tonight (Ladies Night Remix)": "Lady pimp ain't havin' that shit / if you ain't got the cash to stash / suck my dick hoes." Or her contribution to "No Scrubs": "See if you can't spatially expand my horizon / then that leaves you in the class with scrubs, never rising," dropping a veiled reference to her ex-boyfriend NFL star Andre Rison.
A bitch or a babe? Left Eye's voice and her character celebrated both.
Left Eye shines the brightest on TLC's debut, Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip, which came out 25 years ago. It's a brash introduction to three pint-sized stars from Atlanta, a work of playful exuberance and sexual confrontation set to "New Jill Swing," a play onNew Jack Swing, the R&B-meets-hip-hop sound of the late '80s and early '90s popularized by Janet Jackson. Throughout the album's fifteen tracks, Left Eye emerges as the group's unofficial leader, sharing writing credits on nine of the eleven songs and rapping on all but one. Both onstage and off, Left Eye establishes herself as TLC's charisma, the edge to its clean lines, the "crazy" who, in 1992, following the lingering panic of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, put a yellow condom over her left eye as an accessory. "By making it a fashion statement, we're doing something more important — making a social statement," Left Eye told a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. "The point is to make condoms something kids aren't afraid of or ashamed of."
In the albums that followed, which centered heavily on the commercial viability of R&B and less on the group's hip-hop roots, Left Eye's voice got diminished to cameos between the silk pajamas of CrazySexyCool and the futuristic harnesses of Fanmail. As a result, both albums employed Left Eye sparingly, preferring to spotlight the husky timbre of T-Boz and Chilli's silky soprano, an issue that would prompt Left Eye to issue a combative statement to Entertainment Weekly challenging her bandmates to competing solo albums (it never happened).
Perhaps it's through these roadblocks that "Waterfalls," and Left Eye's rap specifically, remains TLC's most iconic song. It's the plea of a young woman gazing toward the sky in search of answers, weary but determined, and flows like salvational gospel. She recorded the verse in 1993, while serving time in a substance-abuse center after setting fire to a bathtub full of her boyfriend's brand-new sneakers, burning the roof off their Atlanta mansion. "I'd been drinking, and there's no size four," she recalled, in an interview for VH1's Behind the Music. Later, she reminisced about seeing a rainbow on the way from rehab to the studio. "I just started reflecting on my life as if it were a storm," she said. In 2002, following her death in a car crash in Honduras at the age of 30, that verse's closing lines would be inscribed on Left Eye's casket: "Dreams are hopeless aspirations / in hopes of comin' true / believe in yourself / the rest is up to me and you."
Mitchell Kuga is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn who definitely didn't have a TLC scrapbook in middle school.