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] ***

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"). ***

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