Mar 25 2022

Song Review: TLC – Waterfalls

When I was a kid, I had no idea “Waterfalls” had a rap verse for a long, long time. This actually happened with a lot of R&B songs that had rap verses. Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” is another one that comes to mind. Because my local pop radio station had this infuriating practice of cutting the rap verse “for time” during the midday shifts, but when I listened in my bedroom in the evening, suddenly I would hear the full song, rap verse intact. I suspect my local station wasn’t the only station in America that did this, and I also suspect it wasn’t done “for time.” If the whole point was to get to the commercials quicker, wouldn’t that logic still apply during the evening hours? I was still hearing ads, but now I was hearing rap verses.

Of course it was racially motivated; maybe the station just thought white listeners, who weren’t used to hearing rap verses on their radio in the 90s, would change the channel. Sure, they were playing chart-topping R&B hits, which were integral to modern Black music, that had Black messages, but the rap verses? That was a bridge too far, I guess. We couldn’t have that. We couldn’t have the best part of the song.

In the case of “Waterfalls,” the rap verse from Lisa Left Eye Lopes is not only the best part of the song, it’s actually the most important part of the song. It’s the part that explains the song’s message in the most explicit terms. It’s a message of tough love, of realism, and ultimately of hope. In “Waterfalls,” we get two sung verses about young people making bad decisions, and of course, the chorus, which uses a metaphor of a waterfall to act as a word of caution. But the rap verse is the one that lays it all out, that talks about Black American struggle, of poor American struggle, of the challenge of keeping one’s faith. “Waterfalls” is a very REAL song, that deals with real shit. It was like nothing else on the radio. Especially that rap verse.

There’s a moment after the second verse of the song, sung by T-Boz. In the verse, she talks about a young man who falls victim to HIV because of his decisions. It’s a tragic few lines, but at the end, before the chorus kicks in, T-Boz sings “y’all don’t hear me.” It’s a poignant moment, mainly because it’s true. The majority of people who hear “Waterfalls” likely aren’t listening too closely to the lyrics, they’re vibing to the song. The production is laid back and casual and evocative of the style of hip-hop at the time. The horn samples and effects-laden guitar are based in funk; they’re certainly more playful than the lyrics they’re attached to. The effect should be jarring, but it actually helps “Waterfalls” not get bogged down in its message. It pairs perfectly with the overall thesis, which is ultimately one of optimism, especially that rap verse from Left Eye. “Dreams are hopeless aspirations / In hopes of coming true / Believe in yourself / The rest is up to me and you.”

Score: 10/10