In the second half of Mary J. Blige’s career, she cemented her status as a legend and managed to gain crossover respectability while still maintaining her status as hip-hop/R&B’s go-to girl. It became obvious that she was the blueprint for many of the female artists on the radio, from Jazmine Sullivan to Fantasia. Meanwhile, Mary experimented with and broadened her own sound, working with pop/rock legends like Sting and U2 (and winning a Grammy for the former collaboration). She even produced songs by two of her idols-Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan (winning another Grammy for the Khan collaboration, “Disrespectful.”
Perhaps most importantly, Mary found the peace she’d spent the first half of her career looking for. Her first album of the decade proclaimed that there was “No More Drama”, and her ensuing work seemed to come from a less volatile place. With the release of her new album, My Life 2: The Journey Continues (review coming soon), Mary seems to be cruising comfortably into her third decade as a performer.
No More Drama (2001): After taking a detour through a more mature soundscape for her previous album, Mary re-established her credentials as a contemporary hitmaker with No More Drama-and how. The Dr. Dre-produced thumper “Family Affair” became her first, and to date only, #1 pop hit. The album is unquestionably more upbeat than it’s predecessor, and features collaborations with the likes of Missy Elliott (who provides the seductive “Never Been”) and Pharrell Williams (whose “Steal Away” is not one of the album’s better moments.) Mary keeps it all the way real on tracks like the bluesy “PMS”, which is about exactly what you think it’s about. It’s overlong by two or three tracks, but it was 2001 and all albums were overlong by two or three tracks. It’s a solid if unspectacular effort that was later reissued with the Ja Rule-featured “Rainy Dayz” and the God-awful “He Think I Don’t Know”, which inexplicably won her a Grammy. I suppose it was a make-up for her more deserving efforts that didn’t wind up winning a prize. Grade: B-
I won’t waste too much time on 2002’s Dance For Me, except to say that I’m not really a fan of modern dance music, and I think that the people who *did* buy this album may have been under the impression that it featured remixes that were more hip-hop identified. It doesn’t. If you dig the whole “Night At The Roxbury” thumpthumpthump, give it a listen. If not, steer clear. Grade: D
Love & Life (2003)-No More Drama gave Mary J. more mainstream recognition than she’d ever had up until that point, so for the follow-up, she decided to go back to basics and recruit Sean “Puffy” Combs to see if there was still some of that 411 and My Life magic in the air. While Love & Life is by no means a bad album, it was also the worst selling album of MJB’s career up to that point and maybe wasn’t as well executed as it should have been. Strangely, this and No More Drama have aged the worst of any Blige albums, even ones that came a decade before. Puffy does his patented sample-jack thing, and the results are mixed. The Tribe Called Quest-looping “Love @ First Sight” and the Dr. Dre-helmed “Not Today” are unspectacular, which makes the fact that they were two of the first three singles kind of a head-scratcher. She fares better with midtempo and slow jams like the summery “Willing & Waiting” and the romantic “Ultimate Relationship (A.M.) At this point, Kendu Isaacs had entered her life, and she was explicitly coming from a more positive lyrical perspective than she had in the past. Still, after three albums in a row that were merely decent, Mary seemed to be stuck in a rut. Grade: B-
The Breakthrough (2005)-Fewer albums have been so aptly named. After nearly a decade and a half of hits, this turned out to be MJB’s commercial watershed moment, scoring the second-highest first week total for an album by a female R&B artist ever, winning an armful of Grammy Awards, and spawning “Be Without You”, which went on to become the longest-running #1 R&B hit in history. Is it on the same level as 411? or My Life? Eh, not exactly. But it’s a different Mary, and this was easily her most fully-formed effort in almost a decade. Key tracks range from the banging “About You” (featuring a vocal sample of Nina Simone, a singer that MJB has long been rumored to be playing in a movie) to “I Found My Everything”, a ballad that sounds like it came from Muscle Schoals studios circa 1969. Certain songs show Mary at her most exuberant, like “Can’t Hide From Love” (which features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest shot from Jay-Z) and a career recap (“MJB Tha MVP”) that would seem like a ridiculous bout of ego-tripping from any other artist. Still, the standout track is a duet with Bono on a cover of U2’s “One”. Mary takes an already perfect song and delivers it with soul and passion. Would you expect anything less? Grade: B+
Reflections: A Retrospective (2006)- At this point in Mary J. Blige’s career, a single-disc distillation of her greatest hits was, quite frankly, a joke. There was no way her best work (or even her most popular work) could be contained in 79 minutes. If you’re new to Mary’s work, this album is barely adequate as a sampler-it leaves off legitimate hits like “You Remind Me”, “Love No Limit”, “All That I Can Say”, “Rainy Dayz” and “I’m Goin’ Down”, not to mention the fact that many of Mary’s album tracks are as fondly remembered as the hits. If you were already a fan of Mary, then you were buying the album for the new tracks (or the duets with Method Man and Wyclef Jean which were previously unavailable on a Mary album.) “We Ride (I See The Future)” was a blatant (if halfway decent) re-write of “Be Without You”, “You Know” was obvious filler, leaving the John Legend duet “King & Queen” and the autobiographical “Reflections” as keepers. Not enough to justify ten bucks, huh? Thank God for a la carte tracks on iTunes. Oh, there’s also a completely unnecessary version of “My Life” on here. Why not just drop the original version in?
Growing Pains (2007)-I still feel like Mary should have taken the opportunity to include a duet with Robin Thicke on this album (I pray you get the joke.) At any rate, this turned out to be Mary J.’s victory lap. It’s easily as good as it’s predecessor, and it can be argued that it’s just a smidge better. Less celebratory than The Breakthrough, Growing Pains tells the story of a woman who had to fight long and hard for peace and contentment, and can very easily access the emotions that she’d previously inhabited. The best songs on this album are touched with melancholy, from the bluesy “Roses” to “Fade Away”, which has a midtempo pop/rock Eighties vibe to it. Michael McDonald or Anita Baker (no, they’re not the same person) should cover it. Of course, Mary lets it be known that this album is by no means a pity party with songs like the ebullient “Just Fine”. Plus, the album closer, “Come To Me (Peace)” will bring you to tears. Mary has rarely delivered a better vocal performance. Grade: B+
Stronger With Each Tear (2009)-Like clockwork, Mary returned after a two year break with Stronger With Each Tear. At this point, Mary’s self-help songs were starting to seem a little less sincere and a little more like schtick. It’s not as good an album as the two that preceded it, but there’s certainly quite a bit to recommend. First single “The One” got things off to a bad start (Mary J. Blige should never go anywhere near Auto-Tune again), and the songwriting isn’t as strong. However, when not hooked up to technology, Mary’s singing is as strong as ever, and there are a handful of excellent uptempo jams on here. Her singing has always come from the Phyllis Hyman/Sharon Bryant school of vocals, and it would be great to hear her on some legitimately old-school sounding uptempo production (think 1982-ish). Stronger comes close to capturing that voice. Of course, at this point a Mary J. album closer was bound to be an emotional wringer-and although the sparse “Color” isn’t as good as “One” or “Come To Me (Peace)”, Mary still delivers an emotional reading. She’d spoiled us with such good product that this album may have disappointed a lot of folk initially, including me, but give it another listen. You’ll be surprised. Grade: B
Tomorrow, we’ll give a listen to Mary’s new album and let you know if it holds up favorably to the rest of her catalog.
Want to get an idea of Mary’s best work? Check out this playlist featuring 20 key moments in her career.