Something About Mary

With her humble poise and non-Diva tone, Mary J. Blige is the unlikely heiress to Aretha's throne

Don't black women have enough problems without being condemned to safeguard the spirituality of their race? Be honest: No matter how strong the Lauryns and Erykahs front, no matter how firmly they draw the line with their Clefs and Tyrones, their allure rests with the fulfillment of an imperative to be holier than their men. Is that our only alternative to the crotch shots offered up as liberation by Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim? Fans of the glamorously imperfect Mary J. Blige know better.

Lauryn Hill penned and produced "All That I Can Say," the first single from Blige's fourth and newest album, Mary. The song is a sensual, word-drunk ode to a "gentleman" who's "sweeter than cinnamon" (yep, that's a rhyme), who need only "stay secure" to fulfill Mary's desires. Lauryn owes Mary nothing less than such a sublime fantasy. After all, Hill would never have been licensed to flatten notes with impunity had Mary not paved the way for her melismatic imprecision. On her 1992 debut, What's the 411?, Blige expanded the blues scale, leaping into free-fall cascades that, at their most extreme, verged on the microtonal. Her 1995 duet with Method Man on "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By" redefined the role of the R&B (read: female) element in hip hop and cleared the path for all Fu-Gee-La to come. But Blige speaks of her junior producer in reverent tones. "She is enlightened," Blige told Danyel Smith in the September issue of Vibe. "That's how I'm trying to be."

Fortunately, Blige aspires to something more than divine fulfillment. Her career has been a process of becoming. Her transformation from 411's jersey-clad b-girl to a fur-draped megastar is all but fully consummated on Mary. The street she grew up on Blige now spies through tinted limo windows. The guest raps from Nas and DMX here sound even more irrelevant and tacked on than guest raps usually do. Instead, the torchy, muted cornet on her version of the Gap Band's "I'm in Love" sounds closer to the heart (if not soul) of this projects-bred Yonkers homegirl, who first jerked the ear of Uptown exec Andre Harrell with a demo of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture."

But it's a circle she completes with caution. As long ago as 1994's My Life, Blige's burnished slow jams could have portended the worst kind of bourgeois escapism. The jazzily rounded chords that bespeak taste when lolled about on the tongues of divas could have signaled the sort of social-climbing pretensions of an earlier era's supremely talented homegirl, Diana Ross. And if Puffy had been too instinctive a pop vulgarian to heed the call of the cocktail lounge, waiting in the wings was that epitome of buppie charm, Babyface, a producer perfectly capable of carrying out any widescale project of R&B gentrification.

Instead Babyface and Blige conjured a bourgeois nightmare, "Not Gon' Cry," the lament of an affluent wife casually traded in for a younger model by her spouse. Wrenching out each of the "e-le-ven years" her character wasted, Blige delivered the premier soul performance of the decade. There was no longer any worry that the vocalist's maturity would blunt her unique edge, only the question of whether she could rise so high again.

On Mary, she does. Even the melodrama of "Your Child" is remarkable. When the song has another woman showing up at the narrator's door with a baby fathered by the man they share, Blige shows a surprising, sisterly tenderness for the boy's mother. "Not Lookin'," meanwhile, pairs Blige with Jodeci alum K-Ci Hailey, with whom she suffered a long, public, and virulent breakup. The track shows how much Hailey has grown into his voice; even if his character's sentiments are callow (he just wants to screw around), his delivery isn't. "I'm not lookin' for no player shit," Blige shoots back at him. "Not when everybody's trying to get with this." She stands her ground proudly, but she also has too much dignity to bug her eyes and waggle her index finger like a Springer guest.

But it's another high-stakes duet, this one with Aretha Franklin, that reveals how far Blige has come into her own. Although the younger singer has twice covered Aretha-identified tunes before, she's both wise and modest enough to know she can't cut the Queen of Soul's legendary vocal assaults on "Don't Waste Your Time." But Mary isn't demure enough to simply buzz about the edges of the melody for decoration. The challenge forces her to further define her idiosyncratic rasp until it comes to represent undaunted, if incomplete, striving as effectively as Aretha's irrepressible style represents unconditional victory. The contrast offers as neat a capsule of the transformation of African-American vocal aesthetics as you could ask for.

It's a welcome validation of soul's secular impulse that Mary, radio-tutored and streetwise, should be a more fitting heiress to Aretha's mantle than the dreaded Whitney Houston, with her authentic gospel pedigree. Whitney doesn't testify: Her self-satisfied display of vacuous technique gives off the smug assurance of the predestined. Blige radiates a need for belief rather than an acceptance of received tenets. She's not a diva, because every note she sings is buoyed with gratitude, an overflow of spirit that, paradoxically, evinces both humbled selflessness and hard-won self-respect.

When Ms. Houston appropriated Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman," it was an act of corporate imperialism, sucking every female spirit into the vacuum of her bland histrionics. By contrast, there's an element of anonymity to Blige that was assisted by the arrival of Mary clones. Suddenly, every woman was her. "I'm just Mary," she testifies on "Deep Inside," while the beknighted Sir Elton John lends the familiar, percussive chords of "Bennie and the Jets." This from a woman who had her own full name, initial and all, tattooed in High Gothic font on her biceps. She's a round-the-way girl who becomes more iconic the harder she clings to her sense of selfhood.

There's a remarkable moment on Blige's 1998 live album, The Tour, when Blige shouts hoarsely, "Now, ladies, tonight if y'all feel like you're the only woman out there and can't no other bitch fuck with you, let me hear you scream." And then a thousand women explode at once in response. It's a shout of individuality, but it's a chorus of sisterhood as well.

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