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Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas on Recording New TLC Album 15 Years After Left Eye’s Death: ‘Her Legacy Lives on Through Us’

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TLC (Tionne 'T-Boz' Watkins, Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes (1971-2002) and Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas), pop group, circa 1995. (Photo by Tim Roney/Getty Images)

TLC is back, and they’re honoring late band mate Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes with their first LP in 15 years.

Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, 47, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, 46, released a new album, TLC, last week, and it’s their first since Lopes died suddenly in a car crash in 2002.

“It was a pain I’d never felt in my life,” Thomas says of losing her friend in the new issue of PEOPLE. “It took a long time to think of her in the past tense. That was a part of my grieving time, and it took a long time.”

TLC had been preparing their fourth album, 3D, before Lopes’s death, and the 2002 record included the rapper. But Thomas says her death affected the group for years to come.

For more on Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.

“Even when we’d perform, we’d have images of her on the screen, but we never ever looked at he screen because we would not have been able to finish the show,” Thomas says. “Thank God for time.”

Indeed, over the past 15 years, Thomas and Watkins have paid tribute the late girl group member, notably with their 2013 authorized VH1 biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story. And with their new album — TLC’s first sans the rapper, save for a posthumous interlude — picks up where the R&B icons left off. And they never considered changing the group’s name, despite losing a member.

Dennis Leupold

“We’re forever TLC, no matter what,” Thomas says. “We worked really hard building this brand together. Remember when Prince didn’t want anybody calling him Prince anymore, and everybody was like, ‘It’s Prince!'”

Adds Thomas of Lopes: “We know she would want us to continue on with TLC and make sure her legacy lives on through us.”

TLC’s self-titled new album is out now; the group is currently on the I Love the ’90s Tour.