CrazySexyCool: Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes

Despite selling more than 45 million albums worldwide, despite appearing in dozens of music videos, performing at the Grammy Awards and the MTV Music Awards and even hosting a short-lived talent search TV show, the lasting image many associate with TLC’s Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes – one looped over and over when she died in a car accident in 2002 – is an image in which Lopes herself doesn’t even appear. It is instead of a large house on fire, flames leaping skyward, smoke billowing into the night.

The house was owned by Lopes’ sometimes fiancé, NFL receiver Andre “Bad Moon” Rison, and the conflagration was famously ignited by Lopes during one of their many domestic quarrels. She later claimed she had no intention of destroying the home and was “just trying to barbeque his tennis shoes.”

Perhaps the image resonated because it served as visual shorthand for a life marked by drama, from Lisa’s tough upbringing to her rocket ride to fame to her many conflicts with her management, the record industry, her bandmates, her men and her family. As the “crazy” one alluded to in TLC’s album CrazySexyCool, Lopes’ persona teetered on the brink of media caricature – a diminutive diva whose outrageous behavior begged for attention even as she bemoaned her tabloid fodder status. Her story is worth re-examining not as yet another cautionary too-much-too-soon pop-star flameout, but as the tragedy of a young woman haunted by loss and, ultimately, unable to escape its shadow.

Born on May 27, 1971 in Philadelphia, Lisa Nichol Lopes was raised as an Army brat and daughter of an abusive, alcoholic father. Lopes taught herself piano by age 5, and her talent did not go unrecognized by her domineering dad, a music lover and multi-instrumentalist who pushed her into talent contests and punished her if she performed poorly. His influence would shape her entire life, from her musical ambitions, to her substance abuse issues, to her dysfunctional romantic entanglements and interest in spiritualism.

After a troubled marriage of 13 years, her parents split for good and 14-year-old Lopes went to live with her mother. Then at age 17, with no high school diploma and only $750 to her name, she moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta, a city in the middle of a population boom and cultural re-emergence. It was there she responded to an ad placed by teenage Crystal Jones, who was looking for others to join her group 2nd Nature. Along with a hairstylist named Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lopes joined and the group got the attention of producer Perri “Pebbles” Reid, who dubbed the group TLC and replaced Jones with Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas.

In January 1991, Lopes was celebrating the group getting signed to a management deal when she got the devastating news that her father had been shot and killed. Just as she was on the brink of stardom, his violent death forever denied her the approval she’d always sought from him. That she continued to seek it nevertheless is undeniable – she wanted to release her numerology-themed solo album Supernova on the 10th anniversary of his death and, according to Philadelphia Weekly, claimed to have contacted her father’s spirit while in Honduras, a place she would increasingly escape to as pressures mounted.

The pressures began when TLC burst onto the scene with Ooooooohhh... on the TLC Tip, a potent blend of funk, hip-hop and R&B that some critics dubbed “new jill swing.” Of the performers, only Lopes received songwriting credit, and the band’s lyrics featured a playful mix of forthright sexuality and female empowerment. Just as refreshing was their look – while most female R&B acts went for En Vogue glamour, TLC stood out with brightly colored T-shirts, baggy jeans, big hats and sneakers. They were like a more stylish and wacky version of the girls down the block – assuming those girls also wore condoms as fashion accessories.

Their first album scored three top 10 hits, sold 4 million copies in a year and earned them an opening tour slot with MC Hammer. But all of this was merely prelude to CrazySexyCool, the biggest-selling and most critically acclaimed album of their career.

Released in 1994, CrazySexyCool became one of the most successful R&B records of all time and vaulted TLC to a new level of superstardom. Stylistically the music saw them shift to a smoother, more mid-tempo soul groove, territory that left little room for Lopes’ boisterous rap interludes. She spent much of its recording in court-ordered rehab while Watkins and Thomas took more active roles – along with no less than 18 different songwriters and producers. Lopes, however, was the only TLC member to help pen "Waterfalls," a song that spent nearly two months at number one and became one of their signature tunes.

The success was followed by half a decade of contractual wrangling, bankruptcy filings, and intra-band feuding. Lopes let it be publicly known that she felt creatively stifled with TLC, who were moving further away from their original sound. Their next album, Fanmail, still debuted atop the charts and won a Grammy, but it sold only about half as many copies as its predecessor. After a tour, the members agreed to take some time off.

Lopes recorded her first solo album, but when Arista Records refused to release it domestically, she was essentially adrift. She worked developing other artists in the Atlanta area. She cut cameo vocals for other big acts. She became romantically involved with Marion “Suge” Knight, hip-hop mogul and convicted felon with a violent reputation, and made plans to release a record for his label as N.I.N.A (New Identity Not Applicable). She worked with the Lost Boys of Sudan Foundation and for a time took care of a troubled friend’s 8-year-old daughter. She had premonitions of her own death and began drinking heavily.

While she tried to find a new direction in her life, she began making trips to Honduras with the dream of creating a children’s home on land she owned there. She also became a frequent resident of Dr. Sebi’s Usha Healing Village, a retreat where she fasted, took herbal medicines and sought a higher plane so she could commune with her father’s spirit. In footage shot just days before she died, she talked candidly about him and about her turbulent past. Right up until the end, Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes was still trying to come to terms with all of the drama.