Over that Hill

With its busy drum programming, ecstatic background choir, girl-group vocalese, old-school scratching, and intricate rhymes, wrapped up in a swing so loose-limbed its knuckles sweep the ground, the single "All That I Can Say" is the most technically impressive and intellectually realized song on Mary J. Blige's new album, Mary. It's also the most alienating and emotionally static. Muse/diva/ spiritual bully Lauryn Hill produced the thing, and she sounds the metallic clang of sancti- mony even here at Blige's easygoing party.

It's no surprise that Blige asked Hill to bring a dish to this long, scenic yacht cruise of a record, and no surprise that Hill showed up with a bottle of Dramamine and some life vests. Blige did background duty on Miseducation's "I Used To Love Him," so she's returning a favor. But she's also hedging her bets--how better to establish righteous-sister cred before going on to make the thoughtful party album one intended all along? Thanks largely to Hill, getting self-righteous on the black community's ass has become de rigueur, especially among women artists--Hill's a folk heroine anda pop star for her brave fault-finding, whereas Chris Rock tattling to white folk is merely a star.

But if disco learned anything from previous African American musical genres--and later party musics learned it right back--it was that music as a communal experience has particular authority when its audience is specialized. And not just racially, either. Ask globo-chicks at the Lilith Fair, do-me feminists pumping fist to Shania Twain, or the frenzied fratboys at an Insane Clown Posse show how much of the concert experience was about music qua music. After The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, young divas with the slightest aspirations beyond the torchy (Braxton), the breathy (Monica), or the teenage (Brandy) were confronted with a very high bar indeed. Hill's admonishments of the black community in an alarmingly general sense-- brothers and sisters in the getting-love mode and all musicians, distinctions not drawn-- implicitly exempted not Sodom's 10 righteous men but one newly redeemed designer-clad miss. If faulty teachings are the problem, then Hill the autodidact is no better informed, using her dismay to justify a breathtaking complacency that equates her own single-mother status with that of--not even Madonna, har har, but the Virgin Mary.

This is the atmosphere, then, in which Blige has written and recorded Mary, which would have been a formidable achievement as little as two years ago but looks like a damn miracle now. She both embraces and blissfully ignores the prevailing pharisaic mood by keeping the focus--and culpability--personal. And she romps through the fields of black music genres, serious and un-, to the postmodernist manner born. You can hear it in the Jam-and-Lewis-produced "The Love I Never Had," in which she choruses "So I better wake up," to pishing cymbals and stalking note progressions that would not shame Earth, Wind & Fire. This new, mature Blige is challenged by the human capacity for fine-tuning nature's raw work, just as the imperfections of the soul madden Hill, who has reached the mountaintop and wants to know what's taking you so long.

Blige's musical curiosity is bigger than her voice; she didn't need massive vocal chops to be the cute-tough hip-hopstress with soul tinges demanding to know What's the 411? in 1992.Since that debut, Blige began using gospelly shadings to smarten up dullish love songs and to mask the emotional void in her faux-inspirational assays. Mary shows progression from the inside out, the only direction in which she can mature, since the irrefutability of the grooves prove in Blige's case that serenity and enthusiasm are more valuable than vocal facility. Any not-totally-unblessed singer with grit enough to duet with Aretha Franklin would be inclined to plant herself like an oak and get blown over. But on the bad-love warning "Don't Waste Your Time," Blige plays supple reed to Franklin's sumptuous bellow, and they're both still standing at the end.

Indictments are forthcoming--she'd sound clueless not making any--but Blige addresses fractured families, for example, with a bracing one-two. First she has some questions for her man on the self-explanatory "Your Child," after which "No Happy Holidays" wonders why we never spend any together. The tone of both tunes, more in sorrow than in anger, doesn't quite cushion the pointedness of running them back-to-back. The plangent "Time" reverberates with the ghosts of great pop tunes, notably Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" (via Coolio), but with an undertone of specificity--"Time is not on our side" is more than an aphorism to a young black male who keeps hearing that, demographically, his days are numbered.

Mary's capable '70s vibe is gleefully old-fashioned, not a history lesson in any sense. When Blige cuts loose for the closing number, First Choice's disco-funk cult hit "Let No Man Put Asunder," she's so deep in the groove she's underneath it, her voice snapping and soaring. She gospelizes the Gap Band's "I'm in Love" and brings a pre-, well, a pre-postfeminist, at least, sexual combativeness to "Not Lookin' "--which phrase is sung, shouted, and ostentatiously over-protested by Blige and her ex, K-Ci of K-Ci & Jo-Jo. Funk, gospel, doo-wop, and soul push the contours of Blige's hip-hop base into playful new configurations, always open-ended and always informing the song before the sentiment. That carefully orchestrated harmony between what works for Blige's grooves and what works for her heart is a better measure of her musical and personal maturity than any shouted declamation.

 
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