TLC: 3D

Production in chart-topping R&B has gotten so thorny and minimal that many singers sound lost as they wander over the brush of jagged beats and whizzing sound effects. Acts like Destiny's Child and Missy Elliott have found solid footing with darting harmony lines and disjointed non sequiturs, respectively, but countless others have involuntarily given rise to a pop landscape that privileges producers over stars for good reason. After jumpy sparkplug Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes died in a car crash earlier this year, TLC would seem ill-equipped to up the ante in an eccentric marketplace that has raced forward since Fanmail came out in 1999. But in spite of a slim body of songs and an occasionally half-finished feel, the group stakes a solid claim to the riches of future-soul with 3D, leaving a distinct stamp on even its weakest material with gorgeous singing built around the understated grace of '60s girl groups. Lopes makes a few spotty appearances with weird and rubbery raps, but 3D trades almost entirely on Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas' svelte coo and the sandy rub that makes Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins such an arresting singer. The stirringly simple vocal moves start early on "3D (Intro)," which runs a hectic drum 'n' bass beat under a major-key harmony pulled from a quaint, distant time. From there, TLC delves into sly playa-hating and wounded, fatalistic ballads that hint at Lopes' absence while keeping explicit references to a minimum. "Quickie" dresses down underperforming ballers with the Borsht Belt-style chorus "You came and then you went... right to sleep on me," while "Turntable" and the post-Pink rock dirge "Damaged" wade in candid despair. Highlighting productions by Rodney Jerkins, Timbaland, Babyface, Raphael Saadiq, and Organized Noize, 3D flails to hit on all the major strains of contemporary R&B. But Thomas and Watkins keep the album cohesive with textured vocal ooze that works equally well over staccato minimalism and gooey acoustic ballads. In TLC's universe, the sensual call-out to Krispy Kremes on "Hands Up" sounds just as heartfelt as the adultery-inspired sadness of "So So Dumb." Legions of R&B acts waver through regrettably blank genre plays, but few make them as rich and worthwhile as TLC.

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