[B]'Shout'[/B] is a close cousin of [B]'When Doves Cry'[/B] and the very mellow interludes of [B]'Come On Down'[/B] and [B]'Dear Lie'[/B] drip with enough spare syrup to reinvent [B]Five Star[/B] as s

[a]TLC[/a] must find it consoling that they can slap stickers on their baby deer-eyed cyber sleeve saying The Biggest-Selling Female Trio Of All Time. In the deluge of midriff-thrusting, control-girls-on-a-sexy-urban-R&B-plus-rap-grit tip, it’s been somewhat eclipsed that they carved the template.

When [a]T-Boz[/a], Left Eye and Chilli strutted on to Babyface and LA Reid’s Atlanta label in 1992 they gave definitive shape to female hip-hop attitude in pop. They wore the condoms, took baggy strides into videoland, trilled about AIDS’n’drugs (‘Waterfalls’) and topped out with an accidental black feminist distress flare when Left Eye burned down her sports star boyfriend’s $2million mansion.

The phrase ‘go girl’ belongs to them, so it’s fair enough that four years on from ‘CrazySexyCool’ they’ve softened a little and broadened out. ‘Fanmail”s overarching ‘cyber concept’ pushes towards the kind of electronic funk that Prince used to excel at, but no amount of robot FX and virtual fourth members can disguise the solid pop core.

A posse of producers shamelessly boost harmonies and razor beats and the songwriting team cover the waterfront ruthlessly. The acoustics’n’tinkling of ‘I Miss You So Much’ are Celine Dion for the projects. ‘Unpretty’ rocks like Hanson. ‘Shout’ is a close cousin of ‘When Doves Cry’ and the very mellow interludes of ‘Come On Down’ and ‘Dear Lie’ drip with enough spare syrup to reinvent Five Star as street coolsters.

Elsewhere, however, the ruffness levels rise considerably as they contribute to pop’s discourse on dating with a cheeky candour that Brit imitators could never ever muster. ‘Silly Ho”s minimal funk lays down the law on not being “a chicken-head”. The mandolin and beats marvel ‘No Scrubs’ applies vigorous elbow to men who think they’re big, but really live with Mom (‘a scrub’), ‘I’m Good At Being Bad’ blends superfly soul with Donna Summerisms and Left Eye’s sly ‘bad bitch’ lewdness – “A good man is hard to find/Well actually a hard man is so good to find…”.

The pop/sex on our own terms manifesto is given a final underscoring by the twinkling soul snog ballad finale ‘Don’t Pull Out On Me’ which combines their trademark pliant, soft-focus purring with explicit, in-control instructions to the boys on how to do the late-night creep properly.

Maturity and cyber tips have not diminished them. Seven years on [a]TLC[/a] are still showing the Honeyz, Saints and Spices how real grrrls do it.