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A Belated Look: Mary J. Blige – Growing Pains

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I’ve been keeping Mary J. Blige’s latest album, Growing Pains (Geffen 2007), at the bottom of my record pile for months — unopened, unheard. I must confess this was not a matter of simple oversight, nor a case of procrastination.

I just didn’t want to hear it.

See, it’s borderline sac religious for a hip hop and R&B fan not to like Mary J. But despite her being a near-constant presence in the New York music scene for the last fifteen years, I’ve just never been able to get into the so-called “Queen of Hip Hip Soul.” She doesn’t have Whitney’s pipes — I’m referring to vocal cords here, people, not crack paraphernalia — Mariah’s range, Jill Scott’s soul-food soul, or India Arie’s earthiness. And she damn sure doesn’t have Janet’s dance moves. In fact, Mary J. Blige is one of the most awkward, out of sync dancers I’ve ever seen. She makes Dame Dash look like Savion Glover.

Now, I’m not saying she doesn’t have talent (she does), or charisma (definitely), or marketability (8x platinum, anyone?), but it has been her human vulnerability and open honesty (concerning her bouts with drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships, not to mention being molested at age five) that has driven her record sales for the last ten years. Her music is real and it is genuine. And this is a good thing — I like that in an artist. But I’ve always thought Mary was…well, in a word: overrated. Historically almost all of her best songs have been collabos/duets: “Real Love” (Remix) with Biggie, “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By” with Method Man, “Love Is All We Need” with Nas, “Back 2 Life 2001” with Jadakiss, “Family Affair” (Remix) with Jadakiss and Fabolous, and “911” with Wyclef Jean. Not to mention everything with Jay-Z. The list goes on.

So when I finally got around to giving Growing Pains an honest listen this week, my expectations were pretty low. Despite the fact that two of the first singles off Growing Pains, “Just Fine” and “Work That,” are both more uptempo than usual, and both are better-than-decent songs, I was anticipating another album chock full of sappy, tear-filled ballads about heartache and pain, strength and independence. To be a dick about it, I was expecting another self-help book on tape for women. In other words, not for me.

But, as George W. Bush would say, I had severely misunderestimated Mary J.’s evolution.

First of all, the album is ballad-free. (Shocking). Second, there’s only one truly boring slow song on the album, and it’s called “Work In Progress (Growing Pains),” which, ironically, is about as close as we get to a “title track” here. Anyway, ignore it, because the rest of Growing Pains is actually really damn good. And though I might not be the target audience (female) for much of Mary J.’s music, I rarely felt as if I was missing the point. Even during “Feel Like a Woman,” which, quite frankly, scares me a little bit. It’s just good R&B, hedged by a few extra pop touches. (More on that in a moment).

The album provides mostly strong tracks, and stays surprisingly upbeat for a mostly serious album — it’s very nearly excellent from start to finish, with only the aforementioned bump or two along the way — and Mary has but two guests on Growing Pains: Ludacris and Usher, both of which (not surprisingly) work out quite well. But make no mistake, this is not a soul or neo-soul album, and, for once, it doesn’t feel like Mary’s trying a little bit too hard to be someone she’s not. Which is why I think I actually liked it.

If anything, Growing Pains may well be Mary J.’s most pop-oriented effort to date, and this reality is reflected in a careful examination of the album’s liner notes (I know, my sickness, not yours), which reveals where both the writing and production are truly coming from, despite MJB’s “Executive Producer” credit. Six of the album’s sixteen tracks are written by Terius Nash, better known to the public as The-Dream, the man responsible for Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and J. Holiday’s “Bed,” both of which topped the charts last year, as well as his own hit, “Shawty Is a 10.” Most recently, Nash co-wrote Mariah Carey’s hit “Touch My Body.”

Another four songs are written by Shaffer Smith aka Ne-Yo, who, along with his own hits “So Sick,” “Sexy Love,” and “Because of You,” has written Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” Rihanna’s “Unfaithful” and “Hate That I Love You,” as well as hits for Mario and Janet Jackson. Other tracks are written by Bryan-Michael Cox, who is responsible for many of Usher’s and Chris Brown’s hit songs, and Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, whose hit cred is about as solid as it gets.

To me, the choice of writers who create number one singles for pop and R&B acts alike, rather than drawing only from her own pool of personal material, clearly signals an attempt on Mary J.’s part to move away from her “woman-scorned” tough girl image, and into a role more befitting a pop/R&B diva. She’s better now. The same can be said of the producers featured on Growing Pains — The Neptunes, Tricky Stewart, Stargate, Bryan-Michael Cox. All have had major success with pop/R&B crossovers.

I found my favorite tracks to be “Shake Down,” a smooth pop duet with Usher, and “Roses,” a downtempo synthfest reminiscent of Kelis’ “Caught Out There” and Beyoncé’s “Ring The Alarm.” Also, “Fade Away” and “What Love Is” are both instantly identifiable as Ne-Yo tracks to the trained ear, and therefore both have “potential hit” written all over them. And “Stay Down” is a radio-ready next single for Mary, as is the Neptunes-produced “Til’ The Morning,” which is basically a giant ball of fun cheese.

But since that cheese is most likely going to be cheddar, more power to the mighty M…J…B.

So consider me a Mary J. convert — for now — and if any other latecomers care to join me on the bandwagon, hop on, there’s still plenty of room.

At least until Mary starts dancing again. Then, lookout for flying elbows.

– Jonathan

Mary J. Blige Official Site

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