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Maturity is Mary J’s Cross to Bear

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Mary J. Blige is one of a dying breed: R&B singers that make R&B songs. Not Hip-Hop or Pop songs masquerading as R&B or "Neo-Soul" music, but the kind of R&B that successfully unites all of the above as good R&B should. While we wait with bated breath for Faith and Toni to drop the album they may or may not be crafting, or finally come to terms with Kelly Price going Gospel for good, Mary keeps hanging onto a genre that is up to its elbows in hallowed dirt.

That's very noble of her, but it sure must be lonely.

Opening with a trifecta of Wonder Woman power anthems, Growing Pains finds Mary J. Blige at yet another point of self-realization. She's satisfied. She wants to be treated like a woman. She wants you to know that she can do what she wants, because she's grown. The thunderous, muscular "Grown Woman" is her answer to Jigga's "30 Something", with her casually tossing out words like "Valentino", "Michael Kors" and "Yves Saint Laurent", but reminding us that she sports them with the kind of class only someone her age can be bothered with. You have to wonder if she's asserting herself among her younger colleagues, taking what could be construed as base materialism and using it to point out that she's been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and knows how to tuck it in.

In that respect, Growing Pains is nearly thematically sound, but tends to suffer from a lack of sonic cohesion. Mary's at her best when she takes it back to the old school with the disco-driven "Just Fine" or the Neptunes-helmed "Til' the Morning", which channel classic Michael Jackson and Taana Gardner respectively. The album could've benefited from way more "way back when", but for every foray into the past, there's a grim reminder that Mary was also around for recent musical conventions that are gradually wearing themselves thin, namely Ne-Yo.

That isn't to say Ne-Yo isn't a fine composer, he's probably the best songwriter in popular music right now. But his songs are so distinctly him you almost feel like he's arm wrestling with Mary over the handful of tracks he was involved in. Only on the album-defining "Work in Progress" does Mary's own identity manifest itself in full.

A good portion of Growing Pains is handled by The Dream and Tricky Stewart, who manage to exercise a great deal of musical range while contributing to it's overall unevenness. "Shake Down", her duet with fellow Bad Boy refugee Usher, recalls the kind of 90's quiet storm slow jam that Mary herself helped define. But "Come to Me", with it's soft-rock influences and somber, pleading arrangement sounds better suited for the new and not-so-improved Alicia Keys. For anyone that thought Mary sounded better when she was depressed hasn't heard Mary when she's trying to depress us.

Probably the boldest moment here is her remake of "Hello It's Me", which differentiates itself from Groove Theory's version with it's triumphant horns and calculated dusty groove echoes. While she doesn't present the same amount of gentility that Ron Isley once did, she still manages to carry us back to that era, reiterating the scope of her influences and laying the smackdown on her contemporaries. This is Mary at her most "grown" on the entire project. Unfortunately, it's only available to those of us that copped the bonus version.

Since Growing Pains followed so closely behind The Breakthrough, it's difficult to tell just how much she's changed in the past couple of years. Most of it is left to our imagination. The Alpha Female declarations seem to be aimed at the current state of urban music, with Mary dipping her toe in the over-crowded kiddie pool long enough to realize she'd rather make waves in an all but abandoned sea called Rhythm and Blues.


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5 Responses

  1. Your reviews are always wrong for some reason...First Alicia Keys now Mary? You don't know good music or what's real?

  2. Yea Nova! Da hell YOU know about good music?! LOL!
    Excellent review and very well put. First listen, while I'm not bowled over, I'm not as disappointed as I was listening to the preview they did on some station last weekend. They played all my least faves.
    I definitely agree that Mary is at her best when she takes it back to the old school. Actually, Til The Morning is the only song I've added to my Top Rated on the pod after first listen. That joint is banging. I think seeing Mary perform live is what it will take to make me fall in love with this album...or at least in deep like.
    I copped the bonus version but haven't downloaded the tracks yet. I'll be back with more feedback then and after a second listenY.
    Slightly off-topic, she looks GORGEOUS in the album photos.

  3. I have to agree with Vivrant Thang; this is definitely an excellent review hands down!!!

  4. Mary's new album is bangin' and I really love the Neyo song 'Smoke'. Other hot tracks are 'Stay Down', 'Shake Down'. I could go on and on I like evey single track. I think this is her best album yet.

  5. so off.... She is a grown,survey most grown men they prefer to have it tucked in at least the "grown men". She is just letting young women know how to be "Grown" To be "sexy" does "not" entail using your "skin" to be "sexy".
    You can where the Baby Phat, Girbaud, Rocawear. But with "class".
    I love her album, it empowers the "Classy"
    African American woman who do exist and dont fall into the image protrayed in most "video's"
    with class and it call marketing how much you want to bet since she is the #1 selling artist this week and if she continues, might see mary in an add or runway show for Michael Kors- defying the norm and breaking boundaries.... u dig.



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