I love Mary J. Blige all day long, and I probably will until one of us dies. That said, I’ve got to admit, I loved her music more back when she was a hot mess. How I long for those turbulent roller-coaster days of My Life (1994) and Mary (1999), when the joy and pain (mostly pain) in her music matched the joy and pain (mostly pain) in her real life, those crazy days of her misspent youth when she was challenging Veronica Webb to a fist fight mid Vibe interview.
For several albums now, beginning with 2001’s No More Drama, Mary has been deliberately healing the pain, travelling a path to mostly joy, and while her journey has had some fine moments (“Family Affair,” her only No. 1 pop single, comes immediately to mind), overall, it’s been missing the, well, drama that made Mary’s music so singular in the first place.
At its most indulgent, Mary’s output this century has been the audio-musical version of a Robert Ringer self-help guide. Yes, the new and improved Mary is looking out for number one, and just in case it’s not bell clear, there’s a song called “The One” to drive the point home. There’s apparently a huge audience for this stuff: Mary’s last two studio albums, 2005’s The Breakthrough and 2007’s Growing Pains, both enjoyed blockbuster first-week sales (729,000 and 629,00o, respectively), and her ninth, Stronger With Each Tear, released December 21, is expected to approach 400,000, without the benefit of a major hit single.
Stronger, like most of its ’00s predecessors, has enough above-average songs (“Said And Done,” the aforementioned “The One,” among them) to make it more than listenable, despite the cumbersome power-of-positive-thinking bent. Although it’s mostly been there heard that, there’s not a bad track among the album’s 12, which for the normally long-winded Mary, is practically EP length.
Short and sweet suits her, but Stronger doesn’t make it’s first truly indelible impression until 10 tracks in. That upward turning point would be “Kitchen,” whose familiar hands-off-my-man message is air-lifted by a straightforward, unfussy Mary vocal that rarely strays from the melody line. “I don’t know it all/But I’ll tell you what I know/Never let a girl cook in your kitchen,” she sings over an R&B groove that’s as timeless as the advice she’s dispensing. It’s a fantastic metaphor that any woman who’s ever picked up a man or a frying pan can relate to.
“In The Morning,” the next track, shares more than a title with a song on Aretha Franklin’s 1998 album, A Rose Is Still A Rose, but the somewhat musty will-you-still-love-me-tomorrow lyrical conceit is elevated by Mary’s clear, forceful voice. And topping off the entire affair is the bluesy soulful closing track, “I Can See In Color,” from the movie Precious. Backed by a simple rhythm melody and singing lyrics that are far more upbeat than anything else about the song, Mary, for perhaps the first time this century, makes her coronation as heir to the queen of soul more than just hyperbole.