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Few records in recent memory embody the contradictions of contemporary R & B better than TLC's Fanmail (LaFace), a ping-pong match between keep-it-real-ism and materialism. At the start, T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli get down with the fans who've sent in letters over the years, cooing, "Just like you, I get lonely too," but return to their pedestal soon thereafter--and for the rest of the album, it's the men who grovel. The smash hit "No Scrubs," a take-no-shit anthem that's inspired similar screeds from Destiny's Child ("Bills, Bills, Bills") and former SWV thrush Coko ("Triflin'") and even an answer song from Sporty Thievz ("No Pigeons"), takes men to task for their bad behavior--"Hanging out the passenger side of his best friend's ride / Trying to holler at me"--but then derides a fellow if he doesn't have a car. "Unpretty" downplays physical glamour--the kind money can buy, like makeup and plastic surgery--in favor of inner beauty and self-pride. But the hilarious "I'm Good at Being Bad," which celebrates raunchiness and sneers at romantic mush--though the gooey Babyface ballad "I Miss You So Much" is nothing but--comes back to the inevitable bottom line: "I need a crunk-type nigga / Makes seven figures." Musically the first half of the album is hard to beat, a giddy mix of jerky beats, sweet harmonies, and brash, if simplistic, rapping. The second half gets bogged down in slow jams and run-of-the-mill midtempo grooves, but ends on a high note: the hot old-school 70s soul of "Don't Pull Out on Me Yet." And anyway, inconsistency seems to have worked in TLC's favor: by constantly absorbing new production developments, updating their look, and polishing it up for mainstream consumption, the trio has dominated the forward-moving world of R & B for the past eight years, and that's no small feat. Friday, 7:30 PM, Allstate Arena, 6920 Mannheim, Rosemont; 847-635-6601 or 312-559-1212.

Peter Margasak

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