Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mary J. Blige

  • What's the 411? [Uptown/MCA, 1992] *
  • My Life [Uptown/MCA, 1994] ***
  • Share My World [MCA, 1997] A-
  • The Tour [MCA, 1998] A-
  • Mary [MCA, 1999] A-
  • No More Drama [MCA, 2001] **
  • Love & Life [Geffen, 2003]  
  • Growing Pains [Geffen, 2007] A-
  • Stronger [Geffen, 2009] ***
  • The London Sessions [Capitol, 2014] A-
  • Herstory, Vol. 1 [Geffen, 2019] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

What's the 411? [Uptown/MCA, 1992]
real is not enough, but attached to the right voice it's something to build on ("Sweet Thing," "Real Love") *

My Life [Uptown/MCA, 1994]
an around-the-way girl's recipe for happiness ("Mary Jane," "I'm Goin' Down") ***

Share My World [MCA, 1997]
Her song sense rooted in slow jams not soul, her soul rooted in radio not the church, Blige is a diva for her own time. As befits her hip hop ethos, she's never soft if often vulnerable, and as befits her hip hop aesthetic, she plays her natural vocal cadences for melodic signature and sometimes hook. Too strong to talk dirty, she leaves not the slightest doubt of her sexual prowess. She redefines the New York accent for the '90s. And she's taken two straight follow-ups to the next level. A-

The Tour [MCA, 1998]
If "street" seems fake and "real" stupid, try an older cliché: "down-to-earth," a corny compliment no one in the '90s earns more completely. Because she cultivates youth-center loose rather than arena big, Blige's de facto best-of is more than an enlargement. If her raucous tone and sour pitch aren't deliberate, they aren't unwitting either--she believes, correctly, that her fans will relish them as tokens of honesty. And to go out she covers Aretha's "Day Dreaming," which made clear long ago just how street soul sisters on both sides of the monitors really want to be. A-

Mary [MCA, 1999]
Rather than hating playas, she's bored with them. Between Aretha and Lauryn and the sister who knocked on the door and just by being sincere convinced Mary she'd had Mary's man's baby, all that she can say is that she's ready to love someone serious and walk away from anyone who isn't. Unless you count Bennie and the Jets, her pop allies don't do all that much for her song sense, which is why her live album is still where to begin. But two more like this and she'll be ready for another. A girl who can come out of a Diane Warren song with no symptoms of soul death has performed a miracle that defied Al Green. A-

No More Drama [MCA, 2001]
positive attitude's a bitch, not to mention a drag ("PMS," "Steal Away") **

Love & Life [Geffen, 2003]
See: No Commoner Queen.  

Growing Pains [Geffen, 2007]
Back in the day, the Aretha comparisons were ignorant--Mary's early albums weren't all they were cracked up to be, and neither was her voice. But a decade and a half later, she deserves respect. Like Aretha, her hip-hop soul has long since transmuted into a working relationship with actually existing black pop, which right now just means pop. On 2005's breakthrough The Breakthrough, that was interpreted to mean soft. This time, happily, Busta Rhymes and Ludacris get her back to where she once belonged for the duration of their openers. After that, it's an expensive, honorable, credible sampler of the hottest current R&B brands, with multiple nods to Ne-Yo and "Umbrella." Even the homiletic "Stay Down" will grow on you, though not for as long as Geffen hopes. The comparison this all doesn't quite live up to: Aretha's multiproduced, hip-hop-friendly A Rose Is Still a Rose, now disgracefully out of print (though you can buy it cheap used). Ten years from now, this best-seller won't have suffered that fate--if "in print" means anything at all in 2018. A-

Stronger [Geffen, 2009]
Plainspoken, low-drama, midtempo love vows, with attempted glamour relegated to the cover shoot ("Tonight," "I Am"). ***

The London Sessions [Capitol, 2014]
Blige's Brit pick-me-up has the general effect of taking a load off. Hooks of neither Swedish nor American manufacture provide a freshness--try Disclosure's on "Follow" or Naughty Boy's on "Pick Me Up"--and when she's beset by doubt, as is always going to happen with Mary, she doesn't get overwrought about it. Matched by the spare piano-and-drums of her countryman Rodney Jerkins, she contains herself even on the pain-wracked "Whole Damn Year." But though I love "Therapy" for telling us exactly where she's coming from, I wish I didn't suspect that the heal-thyself nostrum "Not Loving You" was ghostwritten by her therapist. A-

Herstory, Vol. 1 [Geffen, 2019]
Blige's catalogue is so vast and so crammed with remixes that comparing this 16-track best-of to 2006's 15-track Reflections reveals only that the "I'm Goin' Down"s are identical and the "Real Love"s and "Be Happy"s different before the vastness takes over--no other song is repeated at all. Nor is anything but the always welcome "I'm Goin' Down" on the live The Tour, still my go-to Mary but now 22 years in the past. I miss The London Sessions's searing "Whole Damn Year," presumably adjudged too disruptive for a placeholder celebrating a woman who despite her famous ups and downs--the one she blithely called "Therapy" set her habit at "two times a day"--has been turning out quality albums every other year since 1992. Here be iconic cameos by Biggie, Method Man, Nas, L.L. Cool J, Jay-Z and fleeting ones by Grand Puba and Craig Mack and Smif N' Wessun. Here too be a voice of confident sweetness and clarity in a music where size and grit are the currency, a voice that as she nears 50 has gotten rounder rather than thicker. For three decades Mary has fought hip-hop sexism from within. She may not mean much to Soundclouders with grandmas younger than she is. But she's been a force for good, and you can hear it. A-

See Also