20 Years After "No Scrubs," We Look Back at the Song's Best (and Worst) Covers
The TLC track topped the charts two decades ago this week—since then artists of all stripes have offered up their takes.
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Two decades after “No Scrubs” first topped the charts, reaching No. 1 on April 10, 1999 and staying there for four consecutive weeks, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone of a certain generation (hint: rhymes with "schmillennial") who doesn't feel compelled to sing along when they hear TLC’s era-defining kiss-off to scrubs and busters.
Back around the turn of the millennium, "No Scrubs" topped The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics' poll in 1999 and earned T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli their second Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. But "No Scrubs" is universal, a timeless classic that transcends its dated "futuristic" music video concept and anachronistic lines like, "You as clear as DVD on digital TV screens." Countless musicians of all genres have tried their hand at covering the song. It's so ubiquitous, even Meadow Soprano gave it a whirl.
So what is it about the track that makes people say, "I, too, should sing this"?
Is it nostalgia? The fact that “No Scrubs” is simply a great song, a reminder of the toll of dealing with deadbeat men that continues to ring true to this day? A matter of cultural appropriation, along the lines of Ben Folds' "Bitches Ain't Shit" or Jonathan Coulton's cringey "Baby Got Back"? The answer is probably a combination of the three, depending on who's doing the covering, but we'll undoubtedly be hearing new renditions of "No Scrubs" for the next 20 years. So to celebrate the anniversary of the FanMail track hitting No. 1, we put together a list of some of the most notable “No Scrubs” covers—from the good, to the mediocre, to the scrubs.
Kacey Musgraves (2015)
Kacey Musgraves has been covering "No Scrubs" on tour for years now, and she pulls it off by making it her own. She plays it straight—there's no smirking or "Isn't it hilarious that I of all people am covering this song?" posturing—and adds a little steel guitar for a country twist. As one YouTube commenter noted, "I can't believe she successfully yeehawed TLC."
Big Joanie (2016)
"No Scrubs" is the perfect song choice for this feminist punk trio, appearing on The UK group's 2016 Crooked Room EP. Big Joanie add a little extra oomph to every "no" in the song, driving home the point to all the scrubs out there: You're not getting her number.
Jorja Smith (2018)
Jorja Smith was less than two years old when "No Scrubs" came out in 1999, but the English singer, who was recently nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy, delivers an excellent jazzy interpretation of the single nonetheless.
Zara Larsson (2016)
Like Smith, the 21-year-old Larsson was just a toddler when "No Scrubs" was released, and her cover of the song is just as solid. She stays pretty loyal to the original, opting to belt the chorus at the end.
Kelly Clarkson (2012)
Kelly Clarkson delivered this cover of "No Scrubs" while taking requests from fans at a show in 2012. Her vocals don't disappoint, and she remains faithful to the original's girl-group sound by having her backup singers join her (along with her bass player, who serves as her goofy "backup dancer" for this performance). Little did she know it, but the song would re-enter her life seven years later. Which brings us to....
Kim Cherry (The Voice) (2019)
The judges on The Voice (with the exception of Blake Shelton) all seemed immediately thrilled to be hearing "No Scrubs" during this season's blind auditions, with Kelly Clarkson and John Legend dancing in their chairs and mouthing the words and Adam Levine leaning over and saying, "I wanna reward this now." They’re all caught off-guard, however, when Kim Cherry unexpectedly starts rapping Left Eye's verse; Legend looks amused, and Clarkson literally stops moving, her hand frozen over the buzzer, before she ultimately shrugs and says, “I have to,” and turns her chair to see who it is. Shelton, who will eventually pick Cherry for his team, asks her, "What the hell are you thinking?" Come for the bold effort, stay for the way John Legend flips his chair around and immediately says, "Oh, she's white."
Bastille's take is just one of many mournful-sounding indie rock and folk versions of "No Scrubs." The British band opts for its own synth-heavy arrangement, putting their own spin on the track without teetering into embarrassing territory, though it is admittedly a little funny to hear "I'm looking like class / And he's looking like trash" delivered in an English accent.
Robert Francis feat. Sasha Spielberg (2015)
Grey's Anatomy has a long history of using downtempo acoustic covers of pop radio hits (see also: the sad-sack versions of "Shake It Off" and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" they've used), and Robert Francis and Sasha Spielberg's "No Scrubs" cover continues that tradition, soundtracking a heart-wrenching moment between Jackson and April in season 12. This gloomy take works in the context of that scene, but on its own, it loses the original spirit of the song.
British singer-songwriter Passenger, also known as Michael Rosenberg, took part in The AV Club's Undercover series back in 2017, turning in an earnest "No Scrubs" performance and resisting any temptation to wink or ham it up on the "Hangin' on the passenger side of his best friend's ride" line. That straightforward approach proves effective; Rosenberg makes the song his own and, weirdly enough, it works.
Little Mix (2013)
After opening with a snippet of the Jackson 5's "Who's Loving You," Little Mix took on the TLC track at the 2013 edition of Radio 1's Big Weekend festival in the UK. The choice was a no-brainer for the girl group, and they stay loyal to the original, complete with 90s-inspired choreography.
Unlike Pluto feat. Joanna Jones (2017)
Why Mona, Unlike Pluto's side project with Joanna Jones, has released a slew of house-infused covers, tackling everything from Queen's "We Will Rock You" to the Spice Girls' "Wannabe." But their version of "No Scrubs," which blends jazzy vocals with modern beats, has gotten the most traction, racking up over 20 million views on YouTube.
Glee featured the song in an episode centered around a Sadie Hawkins dance, playing off the dance’s turnabout theme, which requires the girls to ask the boys. The show’s male cast members serenade the rest of the students with the song, dedicating it to "all the strong, proud, and empowered ladies who stuck their necks out to make [the event] happen." It's a nice thought, and we've gotta give the Fox sitcom props for not gender-swapping the lyrics, though this rendition still leaves something to be desired.
Lisa Loeb (2000)
("No Scrubs" starts around 2:51)
Lisa Loeb has played "No Scrubs" live on several occasions, and while her intentions seem innocent enough, the audience reactions can be hard to take. The laughter feels icky, as though the idea of a serious artist like Loeb playing a song like “No Scrubs” were some sort of a joke. Loeb plays it mostly straight in her delivery, save for her remark that "It's like a Yiddish song" on this Craig Kilborn performance.
Incubus covered a snippet of "No Scrubs" during their MTV Acoustic performance in 2000, telling viewers, "This is our hippie fantasy come true." We're not sure exactly how that fantasy translates to a TLC cover, but who are we to judge?
Perhaps the most befuddling of all the "No Scrubs" covers comes from none other than Weezer. Seemingly emboldened by the Internet's joy over their cover of Toto’s "Africa" —a development for which Noisey's Dan Ozzi says he is partly responsible and for which he has already publicly atoned—Rivers Cuomo and company decided to keep it going and cover a batch of similarly beloved songs on The Teal Album. "No Scrubs" is one of those covers, and how you feel about it depends entirely on how you feel about Weezer. For what it's worth, Chilli approves.
Leo Moracchioli (2019)
This is a metal cover of "No Scrubs." I'm sorry for bringing it to your attention. Once you hear it, you’ll probably be caught in the same state of confusion that I’m currently experiencing. Do I hate this? Is it...actually good? Somehow, both are true.