We’re nearing the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the release of Mary J. Blige’s industry changing debut What’s the 411? As was then is still now with the release of Blige’s ninth studio release Stronger With Each Tear. The pretty girl with the razor sharp exterior has had that exterior pierced on record now multiples of times, with varying levels of commercial success. Mary’s calling card as an artist now is in being every woman’s emotionally scarred homegirl, every man’s fragile flower, an elegant disasterpiece of hip hop and R & B soul, her “queendom” of the genre completely dependent upon her desire and ability to plunge into the depths of her soul and unearth gems of songs like most of her amazing discography, her cover of Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down” and the Grammy winning “Be Without You” two of the most noted classics. This album does not ascend to those levels, but in once again cleansing herself of her pain on record, Blige succeeds as an artist of note, legend and appreciation.
Most notable on this album is Blige’s attempt at straddling and not crossing the line of adult contemporary pop inaccessibility to the streets that brought her to the mainstream. It would be simple for Mary to release an album filled with standards and simplistic tracks without gravitas. Let’s remember, this is a woman who is on the speed dial of Bono of U2. But she doesn’t. She certainly stays true to her roots which are absolutely now at play in the mainstream more than ever, her use of The-Dream, Ne-Yo and Stargate, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and The Runners not a strange choice for pop radio in the least. This is a far cry from the days where her work with Sean “Diddy” Combs set the industry forward 20 years. Possibly the only thing about this release that holds it back in the eyes of many is that what Mary did 20 years ago is no longer groundbreaking, but completely expected. It takes the teeth out of her work and makes the heights she still reaches the accepted norms for music. Being a trendsetter becomes a completely different issue when you become a legend. Everyone else has the vitality now that you introduced and no longer have complete control over.
Lead single “The One” features rising to anointing hip hop heavyweight Drake dropping sixteen bars as Mary effortlessly handles a rumbling Darkchild track with snaps, breaks, synths and drums popping off everywhere, a non peak time club champion where Mary asserts that she’s the one her man is looking for. Drake states “while my brother Wayne’s rockin’ out like a White Stripe, I’m a kill the game I’m a Young Money white knight,” and he does so with his typical understated lyrical fury. Follow up single “The One,” written with album executive producer Johnta Austin, and, as expected, the Norwegians bring the sparse, yet room filling instrumentation, this time with violins and a piano, a “Be Without You” soundalike that succeeds, as Mary sings about “the type of love that you get from me, that you can’t find nowhere else.” The album kicks off with “Tonight,” a moody Runners and Konvict Music jam, subtly racing synths and a downtempo break that Mary excellently verbalizes a desire to not contact a man that’s nothing but a world of trouble.
The album’s twin standouts are the Trey Songz duet “We Got Hood Love, wherein in the chorus “I be cussin, I be screamin like it’s over, them I’m lovin then I’m feeling just to hold ya and that’s how we do,” Blige cooks up another R & B winner that shows that she still hasn’t lost her roots. Originally a duet with her and album producer Johnta Austin, stepping aside for it loverman of the moment Songz was more a nod to mainstream accessibility than talent, as Songz is merely perfunctory in his performance. Album closer “Color” from the Mo’Nique superstar turn film “Precious” is a collaboration of Raphael Saadiq’s production and Mary J.’s voice, and the turbulent old soul of Saadiq melds beautifully with the dark colored timbre of Blige’s voice to perfection.
Ne-Yo chimes in with two uptempo adult contemporary tracks here, as is the expectation from the most accessible yet soulful producer in the game, “I Feel Good” and “Good Love” both solid, with the latter featuring a very excited to be on the track T.I. over production that really doesn’t suit his laid back delivery. The album closes with classic Mary J. songs for her longtime fans, as the Polow the Don produced “I Love You (Yes I Du)” is a mid-tempo number that expands with synths into a dance pleaser. “In the Morning,” is a ponderous soul winner that aims classic and succeeds, Mary totally at home with a song chronicling the expectation of heartbreak. The-Dream’s contribution of “Kitchen,” a brilliant piano driven track where Mary advises “to never let a girl cook in your kitchen,” sounding like a G rated Millie Jackson in the process.
In final, to expect groundbreaking and next level work from Mary J. Blige is an exercise in futility. She is the standard by which women in R & B are measured. Like Ella, Aretha and Whitney before her, her ascension to legend status merely means that new material is a continuation of setting the bar, and not making it in any way higher. On Stronger With Each Tear she does walk down roads that are already well worn in her career, but with a voice that has become at it’s most emotive weary and evocative, and at it’s brightest robust and colorful, she now stands as the nature of excellence in soul music.