TLC's "No Scrubs" is 20 years old, and it still teaches me the power of saying no
On February 2nd, 1999, TLC released their chart-topping single, “No Scrubs,” from their third album FanMail.
The instantly recognizable guitar strums at the beginning of “No Scrubs,” TLC’s post-bankruptcy single about men who have emancipated themselves from ambition, is the reverse of a mating call. The now-20-year-old track is a more subtle form of an airhorn, shooing away men who hang out of the passenger’s side of their best friend’s car at a red light and try to talk to women. Not just talk, woo. They say whatever they can say in 30 seconds in attempt to secure a spot in your pants. Because, let’s be honest, these folks have seen nothing but your upper half, so it can’t be your dazzling personality that they’re panting over. The light can never turn green fast enough.
The Hype Williams-directed video for “No Scrubs” was an Afrofuturistic haven that constantly played on music channels all over. So much so that I think the clip of Left Eye, Chilli, and a red-haired T-Boz jumping in sync is seared into my brain. Say it with me: “Noooooo scruuuuubs.” It has meditative qualities if you say it often enough. The vowels resonate and soothe the throat chakra, undoing years of damage caused by coughing up reluctant yeses. I wonder, where is the futuristic safe space where Black women can serve timeless looks, dance, go back-and-forth on a swing, and most importantly, say “no” without consequence?
There needs to be a “No Scrubs” video in every Black girl’s heart and home.
While the version without Left Eye’s career-defining rap verse is important—legendary still, for sure—the song isn’t cemented for me without her final, articulate rejection. She is the only member of the group who has songwriting credits on “No Scrubs,” which is fitting since she often tried to make sure that her ideas were represented in their work. Left Eye’s electric blue outfit and metallic helmet immediately become the video’s center as she takes the spoken word route to tell you that you’re not on her wavelength. “No Scrubs” was one of her final appearances in a video with her bandmates before her untimely death in 2002, and her legacy is unwavering.
Life is hell when you don’t know how to say “no.”
You’re constantly being taken advantage of and you find yourself in situations that you don’t want to be in. Sometimes those circumstances are mild, like a trip to see an aunt when your body is begging you to stay home and relax (but auntie is craving family time and you feel bad). Other times, the situation extends far beyond discomfort and wanders into danger, like that date you don’t want to be on but he was pushy and took your phone to put his number in your contacts. It’s a constant loop—an infinity scarf woven out of passivity and a misguided desire to skirt around confrontation. When you’ve lived as a yes-person, to say “no” is to feel as if you owe an explanation. But you never do.
“No” is a complete sentence. There’s no need for a comma.
Nice, gentle girls aren’t supposed to say no. Not to their parents, not to their teachers, and certainly not to lazy would-be lovers.
It’s “disrespectful”—the idea that a woman can skip over you and be with someone else. Someone who can provide for her emotionally, mentally, and financially. Those women, those new age feminist girls with their boundaries and defined senses of self. They’re bitches; they don’t want to give a man a chance. They don’t want to spend their late teens and early 20s building a man. They don’t want to be emotionally bankrupt because they’re dealing with someone who lives with his mom, doesn’t have a job, and finds money for weed but not for anything else. Oh yes, sir, I’m talking to you.
TLC’s “No Scrubs” has prevailed. It has stood through scrutiny and a cover not-so-well-received by many. Its unique vision and jammable verses make for good introspection and good car rides. Its enduring endowment is the power that comes with saying “no.” No, no, no. No.
“No” is exclusivity; it is independence. It is life. Sometimes it feels like Black women literally cannot afford to say “no,” but we can. It’s a reclamation of our destiny. Saying “no” is indeed the highest form of tender, loving care.