Mary J. Blige
Reviewed on this page:
What's The 411? - My
Life - Share My World - The Tour - Mary - No More Drama -
Love & Life - The Breakthrough - Growing Pains - Stronger With Each Tear - My Life II...The Journey Continues (Act 1)
Blige emerged in the early 90s as a young R&B singer closely associated with hip
hop artists and producers, helping (along with TLC and Salt-N-
Pepa) to muddy the distinctions between those genres. She's called the Queen of Hip Hop
Soul, and honestly I can't think of any competition. Blige has a moving, powerful voice: though her
interpretations aren't always original, and she's not always in tune, you're unlikely to care.
Unlike more technically proficient vocalists like Mariah Carey, the feeling
behind Blige's singing is never in doubt. With her second album she started to come into her own
as a songwriter, produced her 1998 live album, and has put together an impressive string of records that run the gamut of contemporary urban pop forms.
I finally caught Blige live in 2010 and reviewed the show.
What's The 411? (1992)
Propelled by the huge hit single "Real Love," which is light New
Jill Swing with a catchy piano hook but not much opportunity for
Blige to show off her considerable vocal prowess. But she shines on
the slower, more soulful numbers: "Reminisce" (produced by Dave Hall), "Slow Down,"
"Changes I've Been Going Through." She even does a credible job
with Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing." Most of
the tunes are produced and written by former Fat Boy Mark Morales and Mark Cooney
(including "Real Love"), Puffy Combs or Dave Hall, and they're
consistently enjoyable, although the keyboards-and-drum-programming
may get monotonous after a while. The record's also dragged down by
a couple of pointless segues (the endless opener "Leave A Message,"
"Intro Talk") and the title track, a dull rap duet with Grand Puba;
Busta Rhymes and C.L. Smooth also appear. (DBW)
My Life (1994)
After not writing anything on her debut, Blige writes or cowrites
almost everything here. (One exception is the haunting, quietly
desperate "I'm Goin' Down," with lyrics by Norman Whitfield and music by Joel
Schumacher.) Most tracks are produced by Chucky Thompson and Puffy
Combs, and they don't have a lot of ideas, using pretty much the
same West Coast squiggly synth lines, bass vamps and programmed
rhythms on every track - they don't really do Blige's compositions
justice. Fortunately, her vocals are featured more prominently this
time around, and the segues are brief and musical ("Mary's Joint,"
"My Life Interlude"). It also sounds like Thompson and Combs have
been listening closely to LL Cool J's Mama Said Knock You Out: the
pleasant "I Love You" is derived from LL's "6 Minutes Of Pleasure,"
while "Mary Jane," like LL's "Around the Way Girl," is based on the
Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long."
Share My World (1997)
Blige gets a Toni Braxton makeover, crooning light Babyface-style soul ("I Can Love You," title track). Combs and
Thompson are gone, and hip-hop is out the window, though there are brief cameos from Nas, Ol' Dirty Bastard and Lil' Kim. Babyface contributes "Missing You" in
addition to "Not Gon' Cry" repeated from the 1995 Waiting To Exhale
Soundtrack, and the difference in mood is instructive: where the earlier tune is mournful
and moving, the new one is passionless, softly sung, and trite. That goes for most of the album,
where tracks are produced by Trackmasters, Rodney Jerkins (an unabashed Face imitator) and
Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis, whose "Love Is All We Need" is
impersonal and dull. Blige co-wrote most of the tunes, but they don't show any individuality,
just the same old warmed-over romantic sentiments. What's really irritating about all this is
that Blige does have a hell of a voice, which you can only really appreciate on the explosive
"Searching" (also featuring a fine Roy Ayers vibes solo) and James Mtume's ballad "Our Love."
All the professionalism does result in several enjoyable if ordinary cuts: "Can't Get You Off
My Mind," "I Can Love You." A missed opportunity, though it achieved instant commercial success
- debuting at #1 - after an incredible PR blitz. (DBW)
The Tour (1998)
As that mendacious back-biting sports announcer would say, "Yesss!" All of Mary J.'s talent
comes across on this live recording, and it's a treat from beginning to end. While on her
earlier albums she often seemed at the mercy of her producers, drowned out by drum loops or
bland synth layers, here she's fully in control; Blige produced, with musical director/bassist
Lanar Brantley, which presumably helped. Her vocals are riveting on every single song ("I'm
Goin' Down," "Seven Days"), even the lousy ones ("I'm The Only Woman"), and her stage presence
is commanding though disarmingly humble: I lost track of how many times she thanked the audience
for putting her where she is today, and she sounded completely sincere each time. But it's not
just her vocals that are improved over the studio releases: the band - Luke Austin, Loren
Dawson and Jeff Motley on keys, Michael Clemons on drums - liven up the original backing
tracks considerably, rearranging several tunes to add harmonic interest ("Love No Limit"),
seamlessly integrating one track into the next and even breaking down "Missing You" into
nightclub jazz. The only real misstep is Clemons's continuous overplaying on "Sweet Thing."
The best songs from all three studio albums are represented here - though the longest renditions
are reserved for Share My World tunes - along with covers of Aretha
Franklin's "Daydreaming" and the standard "Misty Blue." The only notable guest appearance is by Blige
protegé Dustin Adams, a young man with a clear, thin voice who sang the Earth,
Wind & Fire-derived Blige composition "Keep Your Head."
Blige's fourth studio album has a heavy 70s soul vibe, which isn't a bad thing: the live-sounding drums and bass,
lush keyboards and emphasis on the lead vocals are refreshingly - I'm not afraid to say it - mellow. The opening single,
Lauryn Hill's "All That I Can Say," recalls peak period Stevie
Wonder in gentle tempo, careful arrangement and harmonic sophistication, and two more tunes quote Wonder
directly: "Time" reuses the verse from "Pasttime Paradise," and the words and music of "Sexy," though credited to Blige
and three co-writers, are identical to "I Can't Help It," which Stevie donated to Michael
Jackson. Other 70s influences pop up in "Deep Inside," based on a piano loop from Elton
John's "Bennie And The Jets," replayed (not a sample) by Elton himself, and "Beautiful Ones," which samples
Bacharach & David's "April Fools." But the strongest influence behind this album is Aretha Franklin, which is made abundantly clear on the Babyface-produced
duet with Aretha, "Don't Waste Your Time" - as heartfelt as Blige's from-the-gut singing style is, she's trailing in
Ree's wake vocally and musically. Anyway, the album's chock-full of satisfying midtempo tunes: the deadbeat dad guilt
trip "Your Child," the K-Ci Hailey duet "Not Lookin'," Ronnie and Lonnie Wilson's luscious "I'm In Love."
Diane Warren contributes one of her least cloying efforts ever, "Give Me You," with sedate electric guitar by Eric Clapton. There are too many writers and producers to list, but I should mention that Blige
co-wrote or produced eight of the fourteen tracks. (DBW)
No More Drama (2001)
Blige swaps retro for synth-based, hi-tech ballads and dance tunes, without losing any of the last album's tunefulness or power.
There are occasional old school touches (Rockwilder's terrific uptempo "Keep It Moving" is built on a clavinet line), but more tracks blend synths and drum programming without sounding perfunctory or
aggressively modern ("LOVE"; the Dr. Dre-produced single "Family Affair").
And title aside, "PMS" is a wonderful, tortured torch number, one of many songs here - "Where I've Been" (with a rap from Eve), "Crazy Games," "Destiny" -
about the strength and spirit to overcome obstacles: this record is self-help in the real, not bookstore, sense.
The only thing preventing the disc from being a total classic is some formulaic songwriting: the title track (written and produced by
Jam & Lewis) has a terrific vocal, but a distressingly cheesy, derivative piano opening; "Dance For Me" is trite and uninvolving.
Guests include Missy Elliott (on her dreamy, romantic "Never Been") and Lenny Kravitz; too many other
producers to list, but relative newcomers Kenny Flav and Kiyamma Griffin contributed three decent tracks apiece.
While I hate to give out three consecutive identical ratings, Blige's past three records are strikingly different but of the same high
quality; if it helps, The Tour is the most impassioned, Mary is the most accomplished, and No More Drama is the most
coherent. I wouldn't have predicted it, but right now Blige is the most consistently rewarding artist working in pop.
Love & Life (2003)
Unlike her previous few albums, there's no thematic consistency or coherence to this collection, just a bunch of songs.
The songs aren't up to her usual standard either, and it's tempting to blame that on her reunion with Sean "P. Diddy"
Combs. He produced everything except Dr. Dre's "Not Today," and he's still sticking to his "one 70s sample per song" approach: sometimes the sources are at least obscure
(Bohannon, Atlantic Star, Lou Donaldson) but often they're not (Kool & The Gang's frequently sampled "Summer Madness"; the Ohio
Players' "I Wanna Be Free").
There are exceptions, though, including three great love songs - "When We," "Oooh" and the unforgettable "Ultimate Relationship (A.M.)" - and Blige's singing is as emotive as ever.
Guests include Method Man (the upbeat leadoff single "Love @ First Sight"), 50 Cent ("Let Me
Be The 1") and Eve ("Not Today").
The Breakthrough (2005)
Not as gimmicky or irritating as its predecessor, and the multitudinous producers - Jam & Lewis ("Baggage"), Rodney Jerkins ("Enough Crying"),
Andre Harris and Vidal Davis - provide a solid base for Blige's flights (the single "Be Without You").
Again, though, each song is built on a 70s soul sample ("MJB Da MVP" is based on Patrice Rushen's "Remind Me"), way too many are at the same moderate speed ("Good Woman Down"), and Blige's tortured vocalizing is all starting to sound alike ("Ain't Really Love").
There's one lovely, Aretha-style ballad, though the lyrics are remarkably banal ("I Found My Everything," written and produced with Raphael Saadiq).
U2 perform on their "One," but there's so little chemistry - Blige hardly sings - it amounts to stunt casting; ubiquitous Black Eyed Pea Will.I.Am appears on "About You."
Growing Pains (2007)
A subtle, strong collection combining elements of Mary and No More Drama without the weak points of either: there's lively dance music (jumpy leadoff single "Just Fine" and
the equally peppy "Work That"), there's thoughtful reflection ("Feel Like A Woman" produced by Neff-U); there are throwback elements like strings ("Work In
Progress (Growing Pains"), there are up-to-date production touches ("Shake Down" featuring Usher).
Production comes from Tricky Stewart (the luscious, reflective "Roses"), Stargate, Dre and Vidal ("Hurt Again") and some up-and-comers: Dejion Madison, last given the thankless task of producing Shawnna, contributes the masterful, slow-beating "Grown Woman" (featuring Ludacris).
The Neptunes' "Till The Morning" is one of the simplest songs they've done, yet one of the more memorable: a midtempo ballad with Blige ably channeling Chaka Khan.
Through it all, there are Blige's vocals, which are richer
and more varied than the relentless overemoting found on The Breakthrough, and the artistic statement is so coherent and resolute you'd never guess so many writers and producers worked on it. The best 2007 album I've heard.
Stronger With Each Tear (2009)
A familiar list of producers: Stargate ("I Feel Good," a rehash of "Just Fine"), Stewart (the electro-reggae "Kitchen"), Jerkins ("The One" featuring Drake). Stylistically a mix - the heavily processed dance track "Tonight"; the throwback R&B "Good Love" with T.I. - and the results are mixed too (the drab ballad "In The Morning").
Blige's attempts to uplift the listener - though undubitably heartfelt - are often overripe ("Each Tear").
And I wish the industry would self-regulate a maximum of one "Rihanna Oh" per album ("I Am" and "I Love U" are two offenders).
On the plus side, Cox's "We Got Hood Love" - a duet with Trey Songz - is a luscious love song, the layered bridge of "Said And Done" (written and produced by Ryan Leslie) is gorgeous, and while many tracks are underwhelming (Saadiq's nightclub blues "I Can See In Color"), nothing's dreadful.
My Life II...The Journey Continues (Act 1) (2011)
In sharp contrast to Blige's many enduring album-length statements, this is just another record, with no particular coherence, relevance or reason for being (the country weeper "Need Someone" in particular is a head-scratcher). The romance themes and rapper-of-the-moment guests seem more perfunctory than before, even when the results are worthy ("Mr. Wrong," with Drake rediscovering the acid self-examination that was missing from his lackluster 2011 offering).
There are a few solid tunes (the lush, loving "25/8"), but the weaker ones have nothing going for them - "Next Level" frontlines stale words from Busta Rhymes amid trite club keyboards, reducing Blige to an afterthought; the cover of Rufus's "Ain't Nobody" is strikingly pointless - and there are loads of tracks that aren't bad, aren't good, aren't much of anything ("Empty Prayers"; "Why").
Guests include Beyoncé ("Love A Woman"), Nas ("Feel Inside"), Lil Wayne and Combs; producers include standbys like Jerkins and Tricky Stewart joined by Jim Jonsin, Jerry "Wonda" Duplessis and The Underdogs among others.
A Mary Christmas (2013)
Guests include Barbra Streisand, Mark Anthony and Jessie J. (DBW)
Think Like A Man Too (Music From And Inspired By The Film) (2014)
Includes a cover of Shalamar's "A Night To Remember"; "See That Boy Again" features Pharrell Williams. Most of the rest is from Stewart and The-Dream ("Vegas Nights"), though two tracks (the blissful "Wonderful") were produced by Flippa, Oak, Pop and AceFace, and leadoff single "Suitcase" was contributed by Mark Feist.
The London Sessions (2014)
Due in November; collaborations with Disclosure ("Right Now"), Sam Smith, Naughty Boy and Emili Sandé.
What's The 411?