The group was very successful in the 1990s and early 2000s in spite of numerous spats with the law, each other, and the group's record label and management. The group has scored ten top-ten singles, five of which went to number one; four multi-platinum albums; and won 4 Grammy Awards. Having sold over 65 million records worldwide, TLC is the best-selling American female group of all time.
Billboard magazine ranked TLC as one of the greatest musical trios. At the end of 1999, TLC was ranked as the seventh most successful act of the 1990s by Billboard. In 2008, the group was inducted into the All Time Hot 100 Artist Hall of Fame by the same magazine, at 56th place. That year it was also listed as the #25 R&B/hip-hop artist of the preceding 25 years. In 2012, TLC ranked 12th on VH1's 100 Greatest Women in Music, the highest position for a girl group/ In 2015, the group announced that they would be disbanding after recording and promoting their fifth and final studio album together.
Their debut album, Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip, was released on February 25, 1992, by LaFace. The songs on the album are a blend of funk (Watkins), hip-hop (Lopes), and R&B (Thomas), similar to the "new jack swing" sound popularized by producer Teddy Riley in the late 1980s (and TLC's sound was sometimes cited as an example of the "new jack swing" genre). The album was a critical and commercial success, being certified quadruple-platinum within a year and launching a number of US Hot 100 top-ten singles with "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg", "Hat 2 Da Back", "What About Your Friends", and "Baby-Baby-Baby" which reached No. 2 on the Hot 100.
TLC's debut album, chiefly written by Dallas Austin and Lisa Lopes, consisted of playful lyrics, with some female-empowering songs. It was characterized by Watkins' low-register contralto vocals, Thomas's higher-register mezzo-soprano vocals, and Lopes's quirky soprano raps. The musical formula was augmented by the girls' brightly colored videos and curious costuming: each girl wore wrapped condoms on their clothing (Lopes also wore one over her left eye in a pair of glasses).
In late 1993, TLC re-entered the studio with Dallas Austin, Tim & Bob, Arnold Hennings, Jermaine Dupri, Babyface, Jon-John Robinson, Organized Noize, and Sean "Puffy" Combs to record their second album, CrazySexyCool which was released on November 15, 1994. Lopes was released from rehab to attend the recording sessions, but the finished album featured significantly less of her raps and vocals. The album instead focused more on the contributions from Watkins and Thomas, and had a smoother, more fluid sound, similar to the most successful single from the first album, the US #2 hit "Baby-Baby-Baby".All four singles from CrazySexyCool reached the top 5 of the US Hot 100, while "Creep" and "Waterfalls" peaked at no. 1, "Red Light Special" reached no. 1 and "Diggin' on You" reached no. 5. "Waterfalls", an Organized Noise-produced song that featured an old-school soul-based musical arrangement, socially conscious lyrics criticizing drug dealing and unsafe sex, and an introspective rap from Lopes, became TLC's biggest hit, and its million-dollar music video was an MTV staple for many months. Also in 1994, TLC recorded the theme song to Nickelodeon's popular sketch comedy All That which was produced and co-written by Arnold Hennings which ran for ten seasons.
CrazySexyCool eventually sold over 11 million copies in the US, while worldwide sales exceeded 23 million copies; it received diamond certification from the RIAA;and TLC won two 1995 Grammys, taking home Best R&B Album and "Creep" garnering Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group. However, in the midst of their apparent success, the members of TLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 3, 1995.
Preliminary work on TLC's third album, FanMail, was delayed when friction arose between the group and their main producer Dallas Austin, who was by this time dating Thomas and helping to raise their young son Tron. Austin wanted $4.2 million and creative control to work on the project, resulting in a stand-off between the producer and the artists. During this period, Thomas appeared in the independent film HavPlenty, and Watkins co-starred with rappers Nas and DMX in the 1998 film Belly, directed by Hype Williams, who later directed the "No Scrubs" video. Watkins made a solo song a year earlier called "Touch Myself". Lopes started her own production company, Left-Eye Productions, and signed Blaque, a female R&B trio. She also appeared on the "Not Tonight" remix with fellow female rappers Lil' Kim, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Da Brat and Angie Martinez, which garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance by a Duo, Band, or Group in 1998. She also hosted the short-lived MTV talent series The Cut which featured then-unknown recording artists Ne-Yo and Anastacia.
TLC eventually began working with other producers for the FanMail album, until finally negotiating with Austin, who produced the bulk of FanMail. Lopes always had an idea of a futuristic-feel for the project, which Austin incorporated into the album. FanMail was released in February 1999. The album was another success for TLC, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart and selling over 6 million copies in the U.S. The album featured the number-one hit "No Scrubs", produced by Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, and the single "Unpretty", an alternative rock-styled song about self-love written by Watkins and Dallas Austin (another version of it sampled Dennis Edwards' 1984 hit "Don't Look Any Further"), that also reached #1 on the Billboard chart. At the Lady of Soul Awards the group was honored with the Aretha Franklin Entertainer of the Year Award.
During and after the release of FanMail, Lopes made it known to the press on multiple occasions that she felt that she was unable to fully express herself in TLC. Her contributions to songs had been reduced to periodic eight-bar raps, and there were several songs in which she had no vocals on whatsoever. Studio session singers such as Debra Killings often sang background vocals for the group's songs, something Lopes also wanted to do on songs in which she didn't rap. In late 1999, Vibe Magazine published a letter written by Lopes that challenged her groupmates Watkins and Thomas to all record solo albums and see which album performed the best:
"I challenge Tionne Watkins (T-boz) and Rozonda Thomas (Chilli) to an album entitled The Challenge... a 3-CD set that contains three solo albums. Each (album)... will be due to the record label by October 1, 2000... I also challenge producer Dallas Austin to produce all of the material and do it at a fraction of his normal rate. As I think about it, I'm sure LaFace would not mind throwing in a $1.5 million prize for the winner."
The ladies eventually settled the feud, and The Challenge was never followed through. After the conclusion of the successful FanMail tour, the ladies, however, took some time off and pursued personal interests. Lopes was the first to begin recording her solo album, Supernova. The album was released in Europe and the first -and only single- "The Block Party" reached the Top 20 in the UK. The song was released in the US a few weeks prior to the scheduled album release for the US. However, when the song did not perform well in the US, the album's release was canceled for North America and no further singles were promoted, not even in the countries where the album was released. In 2000, Spice Girl Melanie C released a single co-written with Lopes in the UK and Europe, called "Never Be the Same Again"; it became a hit reaching #1 in many countries.
Before the recording of their fourth album, 3D, Lopes eventually pursued solo stardom and recorded her first album Supernova, however it underperformed overseas and as such was never released in America. On April 25, 2002, before her second solo album was completed, Lopes died in a car crash while filming a documentary in Honduras, which would later be released as The Last Days of Left Eye in 2007 on VH1.
Returning from yet another hiatus after Lopes' death, Watkins, Thomas, and Austin decided that they would complete the remainder of their fourth album, to be called 3D, which also featured production from Rodney Jerkins, The Neptunes, Raphael Saadiq, Missy Elliott and Timbaland. The decision was also made that TLC would retire after the release and promotion of 3D, rather than replace Lopes and continue as a group, although they ultimately chose to carry on as a duo for the foreseeable future. Lopes does appear vocally on 3D as she had already completed her vocals for two songs for the new album. Another two other songs featured her vocals from previously unreleased songs. Several of the songs eulogized Lopes. "3D" was released on November 12, 2002