Tuesday 3 August 2021

Mary/ Mary J. Blige (1999): Albums of my Life: an A-Z

 spending hours of my time, in my room listening to albums like this one. At age 15, I was on an R n B/ soul train, browsing the comparatively small, devoted section in HMV like my life depended on it. It's not like we had Google, so I would get to see some music videos on MTV Base and then I would go from there just following artists through artists. If someone collaborated on a track of a singer or band I liked, I'd hunt that artist out. Or if I heard a snippet of something somewhere that caught my ear, I'd try and investigate, often taking a gamble on an album just based on hearing part of a song or the reputation of a singer or group. Some R n B and soul was brought to me through the mainstream charts-- but,  more than many of my friends-- I sought out music of black origin in a big way. There was nothing that came close for me in terms of the romance, the sweetness of the harmonies and the sexiness! 

From a young age, I listened to Michael Jackson's back catalogue with an affinity for the way it dove in and out of pop, soul, disco and funk. Of course, as a pre-teen, I'd never have given my passion for music a second thought, in fact, it's only as an adult that I realised that music obsession (listening to albums from start to finish, lying on your back on your bed, eyes closed; skipping back to a certain riff over and over to mentally assimilate the beautiful vocal acrobatism of it) is not something everyone does. But this is what music of black origin does for me. I say 'music of black origin' deliberately because as I've got older, I realise the importance of that. The far-reaching influences of R n B (from jazz, gospel, swing and blues) tell part of the history of its foundings; however, the context of racial segregation and discrimination can never be overlooked. From oppression comes solidarity within communities, creative power and a powerful sense of ownership.

Whilst Mary J. Blige's 'Mary' was part of a soundtrack to my own youth, it is my understanding that Mary J. Blige and other black female artists like her are not only iconic, but imperative role models within the African-American communities and beyond. 

Listening to this album as a youth meant I was given a blissfully ignorant experience of it. By that I mean I listened to it within my own context as a white girl in Southern England having no real idea of growing up within a different place or skin. This blissful ignorance also meant an open heart to interpreting the album and finding a connection with it. What's apparent, is that Mary's music can be universal when it comes to speaking to fragile, tender hearts. I'm sat here now over twenty years later, listening to the track 'Memories' and her vocal: 'How can men nowadays bring you show much joy and so much pain? Can anybody help me? I think I'm going insane.' is a prime example of that! 

Whilst I now have more of a context for the importance of Mary J. Blige as an artist, at its heart, her music's relevance is like a perennial flower stretching across continents and people.

'Mary' is the fourth album by Mary J. Blige and my favourite of all of the releases that I know well. Looking over the list of contributing artists, writers and producers, it is really no surprise that this is a masterpiece of an album. The album kicks off with 'All That I Can' say written by and featuring the incredible Lauren Hill; Stevie Wonder appears on several of the writing credits, including 'Sexy' (which features the chorus of his song--Michael Jackson's 'I Can't Help It' from 'Off the Wall'). Elton John also plays on 'Deep Inside', which samples his 1974 song 'Bennie and the Jets'. 

The opening track, 'All That I Can Say' set the tone for me when I first discovered this album. It's just so cool sounding. There's some great production on it with a clever fusion of more 70s era soul (the keyboards and the backing vocals) with more modern beats and vocal effects at the opening. Lauren Hill of The Fugees had released her solo album 'The Miseducation of Lauren Hill' a year before, proving herself to be a creative genius as well as a phenomenal rapper and vocalist. This song shows how talented she is and the two work together perfectly on this track

The song 'Beautiful Ones' is a real stand out on the album. It opens with an acoustic guitar sample from 'The April Fools' by Earl Klugh. It has a bit of vinyl crackle on it which, especially when the beat kicks in, makes for a somewhat classic sounding piece-- like the opening track aforementioned, it sounds of another era, yet this is contradicted by the contemporary R n B rhythm. Mary's vocal is staccato in places and in others it is rich and soulful, painfully sweet as the track goes on. And, the chorus: wow. It's gospel-sounding and there's a layering of tones which are so beautiful to the ear; they sound so sombre, yet so hopeful-- there's a somehow discordant quality that works to absolute perfection and feels ethereal. If you listen to one song from this album, let it be this one.

But don't stop there. Listen to 'I'm in Love'. It has an easy, breezy tempo with jazz elements (yes, a brief sax solo) and leads to a vocal in the chorus that epitomises new love and the rushing, giddy feeling of it. 

There's a duet with Aretha Franklin, 'Don't Waste Your Time' a few tracks later which moves the album onto another facet of the theme of love and relationships: the breakdown of trust. And this is where the relatatability of the album may come into play for many listeners. On 'Not Lookin' Mary duets with K-Ci (Jodeci/ K-Ci and Jo Jo) who was her long-term partner at the time. The relationship was famously tumultuous (even said to be abusive) and you can hear it in the vocal, there's a strained quality beyond just the lyrics. You really can feel it. Mary J. Blige had already experienced a hellish time growing up, and you get the sense in this portion of the album that she's bearing some of herself in terms of her focus on rejection, heartbreak and let down. It's not pretty, but it's real and reassuring. We all know that love can send you to all kinds of brinks.

'No Happy Holidays' definitely leans on the 'B' in R n B as Mary sings from the heart. I was a mere child listening to this and I felt her pain (I didn't understand it at the time, but it gave me an insight into the darker side of relationships-- good training, I guess). The way Blige ad libs in the song makes it genuine and heartfelt. Then her spoken intro on 'The Love I Never Had'  saying "wake up" and "stop living in a dream because it's over now. You gotta think about you": it's like you're being looked out for by your big sister. Some women never get to have that big sister fighting their corner and this is where albums like this are more than just late 90s R n B throwaways. They're a kind of spiritual intervention and solace for many.

The catharsis (?) of the album comes with Mary's cover of 'Let No Man Put Asunder' (originally First Choice's 1977 song, written by Bruce Gray and Bruce Hawes). This upbeat track does leave us on a high note, but I think many of us might have preferred to see Mary's narrative release her from the torment of her love life (autobiographical or otherwise). Nevertheless, we may take from this final track that things are never so simple in the real world.

1. Beautiful Ones- heavenly, just--

2. No Happy Holidays-- Mary is no-one's 'other woman', let it be known

3. All That I Can Say-- such a good opening to an album

... I need cocooning in feminine energy, strength and power.

' You are my soul
When there's no music to play
Oh I wanna marry someone like you some day.   (Beautiful Ones)

... magenta. I love the yellow colour on the CD case of this album, but magenta feels right. This album is like bright, oxygenated blood pumping through your veins after receiving a bouquet of beautiful pink roses...then watching the petals drop as the days pass.

'Music of my Mind'/ Stevie Wonder (1972)
'Music and Me'/ Jackson 5 (1973)
'Moving Violation'/ Jackson 5 (1975)
'Middle of Nowhere/ Hanson (1997)

What is your favourite album beginning with M?

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