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The Commoner Queen

Mary J. Blige Retains Her Hip-Hop-Soul Amateur Status and Makes Her Prose Sing Again

book cover

Let me preface the product report by noting that when I want to hear Mary I will play 1998's The Tour, just like always. Right, I call her Mary. I can't stand the male/white reflex of slipping into the familiar when referring to female/black artists, but Mary J. Blige makes it as impossible to avoid as Aretha Franklin. Not because she's so iconic or royal, "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" though she may be, but because she feels like what used to be called a familiar--an intimate, a member of the family. While this is an illusion by definition, most of the artists who've excelled at creating it have a certain commonness in common, so that in crucial respects Mary resembles John Mellencamp more than she does Aretha. But it's Mary the commoner who moves me. Maybe that's because she's my homie--her straight-outta-Yonkers New Yorkese gets me every time. Or maybe it's because there's no one like her.

People talk about what a great voice Mary has, but she doesn't--not like Sequence alumna Angie Stone, Bad Boy good girl Kelly Price, Biggie moll Faith Evans. Loud and forthright but hardly curvaceous, it powers a chronically off-key attack that's flat and prosey--near-spoken, as tune-carrying goes. So the ease with hip-hop that won her an instant following had a formal component. It wasn't just Grand Puba and Busta Rhymes (guesting, Busta so new the credits called him "Rhyme") meeting Shirley Brown and Dorothy Moore (influencing, and good for you if you've heard of either). It was how unselfconsciously this 21-year-old from the projects brought her mama's music together with her own. The meld seemed so natural. Yet though she made Stone and Price and Evans possible commercially, they were studio pros and she wasn't. And though the new Love & Life is certain to become her seventh platinum album (how many 1992 rappers can say that?), the mark of the professional is not yet on her. Sure her romantic travails can be mistaken for shtick, sure she's shown poor deportment with interviewers, sure she's performed from a fake throne, sure she talks "Mary's world" like she's a star and you're not. But Mary's world isn't a star's world. She never flaunts how fine or filthy she is. She never bitches about haters or brags about her stuff. In fact, she never acts as if she's better than anyone except the fool who wants her man--not even in her quest for "perfection."

For hip-hoppers, great Mary means early Mary--1992's What's the 411? and 1994's My Life, masterminded by a young Puffy Combs back when hip-hop soul was new jack swing. My position is that consistency caught up with concept only as of 1997's Share My World and 1999's Mary, after she'd dumped not just Puffy but the jerk from Jodeci she'd hooked up with and her well-known if unspecified "substance abuse." But really, who's counting? Modern r&b isn't about discrete songs. It's about texture, mood, feel--vocal and instrumental and rhythmic, articulated as they're smooshed together. In the end I treasure only three individual Mary titles: "I'm Going Down," originally fashioned by Norman Whitfield for Rose Royce; the wicked bait-and-switch "PMS," a verbatim rip of Al Green's "Simply Beautiful" on 2001's front-loaded No More Drama; and Babyface's Waiting to Exhale special "Not Gon' Cry." After that it's just the ones that are livelier or more soulful than the other ones.

Take for instance Love & Life's first single, for her beau of three years, the one who really really got her to stop drinking: "Love @ 1st Sight," string-cushioned 35-second apostrophe breaking into Puffyized Tribe Called Quest lope revved further by the live-and-kicking Method Man, who once shared a duet Grammy with Mary. Unfortunately, Mary has never picked up much street poetry from her love affair with rap, so Method Man's "You go mama/Nowadays I'm more calmer/And if you take a look at my life no more drama" are the best lines on a record that favors her usual "Making all my dreams a sweet reality" and "How many of us have them/I don't think we really need them/If they're not our friends." The selling point is a reborn P. Diddy overseeing a catchy set husbanded by many co-producers. It peaks in the middle, and between "It's a Wrap" kiss-off and love-in-the-a.m. finale ends stronger than No More Drama. Up against What's the 411? Mary sounds older yet still girlish, rounder and smoother and pitch-improved but praise Shirley Brown not perfect yet.

And now I'll play The Tour again, thank you. Not for its slightly gauche show band, or even for its concentrated song selection and bonus covers. More for its hype man cheerleading like the nameless subaltern he is and the high-pitched cheers he works up; for Mary missing notes, or claiming she's getting fat and then not worrying about it anyway. In this context, deathless nonpoetry like "I know that I was wrong for all that carrying on/But are you gonna hold it against me?" carries weight. Removed by age and race and class from these particular gender wars, I'm free to root for the good guys--strong decent females who'd "rather be loved than be judged by a buncha assholes." In Mary's world, Mary speaks for them, and to us.

Village Voice, Sept. 30, 2003