I owe Mary J. Blige an apology.
Why? When she first hit the music scene with “Real Love” in 1992, I initially dismissed her as another one hit wonder, just a dance/hip hop artist who would quickly fade from the charts. Boy, was I wrong. With every album, her voice has grown stronger, wiser, and more heartbreaking as she fearlessly chronicles her personal struggles with drugs, romance, and depression. Her most recent album, Growing Pains, has cemented her status as a modern, streetwise Aretha Franklin.
Her major breakthrough, both critically and commercially, was 2002's No More Drama, a fiery collection of everything from personal struggles (exemplified by the emotional title track) and celebration (“A Family Affair”). But it was Mary, her previous album, that convinced me of her true talents. Strangely, Mary has received little acclaim or notice since its 1999 release; even Blige herself glossed over it when reciting her triumphs in The Breakthrough's “MJB Da MVP.” Mary deserves acclaim for its exquisite production and Blige's powerful vocals.
Back in the late '90s, Lauryn Hill was at the peak of her powers, and contributed two tracks to Mary, most notably “All That I Can Say,” the dreamy first single off the album. The beat is unusual, but Blige effortlessly rides the tempo while crooning shamelessly romantic lyrics: “Loving you is wonderful/Something like a miracle/ Rest assured I feel the same way you do.” She adds sensuality to the mix with “Sexy,” which subtly samples Michael Jackson's Off the Wall track “Can't Help It.” Despite the superfluous rap in the middle, the song lets Blige confidently flaunt her sexuality while maintaining the romantic strain from “All That I Can Say.” She further displays her range in “I'm in Love,” a Burt Bacharach-tinged song with horns and an overall retro vibe.
As with every album, Blige includes confessional songs highlighting her own life struggles. “Deep Inside” describes her mission to balance her personal and private lives, keeping her true friends and finding a real romantic relationship. She is accompanied by none other than Elton John, who plays the chords from “Bennie and the Jets” over a heavier beat. Having John play the song live adds more punch to the track, rather than just sampling the original recording. While I'm unsure if she actually lived through the experience, she certainly makes “Your Child” sound personal. In one of her best performances, Blige alternates between anger, sorrow, and resignation as she narrates the story of a doomed love affair. A woman appears at her doorstep holding an infant, announcing that Blige's current boyfriend is the father. Subsequently she confronts the boyfriend, announcing that their relationship is over. Typically this type of ballad demonizes the “other woman” — in fact, Blige tells the boyfriend that his girlfriend “wasn't disrespectful/In fact she's 100% sure.” She then informs the man that their relationship is over, angrily asking him “How could you deny your own flesh and blood?”
The clever “Happy Holidays” describes a love affair, with Blige listing every holiday that she and her married lover have never spent together. She then channels the anger from “Your Child” into lambasting a womanizer in “Not Looking,” a duet with K. Ci that recalls the old school Womack & Womack track “Baby I'm Scared of You.” A “battle of the sexes” song, K. Ci hits on Blige, stating that he's not looking for a serious “love affair,” while Blige responds that she's not looking for “player s**t.” The song interestingly complements “Don't Waste Your Time,” a furious duet with the aforementioned Aretha Franklin. Franklin plays the wiser figure advising Blige to not “waste her time” on a doomed relationship, to “just walk away.” Blige answers that it “gets so hard to know,” but she she knows that she's “gotta let go.” Hearing the two soul divas trade vocal improvisations toward the end of the track is a thrill, a sort of passing of the R&B torch.
Recent albums have seen Blige venturing more into rock territory, and the track “The Love I Never Had” demonstrates her versatility in this genre. The band behind her sounds like it was recorded live without overdubs. Her voice duets with the electric guitars, escalating into a full funk-rock workout. The end of the song features Blige improvising over the band, showing other would-be soul divas how to build emotional intensity into a song.
As a bonus, Blige covers the First Choice classic “Let No Man Put Asunder,” remaining very faithful to the original recording. By doing this (as well as duetting with Franklin), she pays homage to her R&B forbears, but establishes her place in the soul genre as a great talent. With Mary, Blige proves worthy of her “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” title, and foreshadows the versatility demonstrated on later albums. Although Mary has received little attention compared to her more recent releases, this almost decade-old gem deserves another listen and greater appreciation.
For her full discography and more information, check out Blige's home page.