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Marked Woman

Grounded black angel, bringing home the pain
photo by Daniel Root

Mary J. Blige never would've earned or kept her crown as the queen of hip-hop soul without a trunk full o' drama. Mary J. Blige is drama, and that's why, unlike so many '90s-reared divas, she is so much more than her songs. Other ghetto-fabulous girls escape dead-end upbringings and still represent, but Blige goes deeper than flesh, fate, and finance to embody aches stretching back to the apple.

On her misleadingly titled No More Drama, she at one point sings about having "the mark." In the song's context, the mark represents her talent, but in the course of her career, it's also a mark against her, one that thrusts Blige into the spotlight and fans the haunted mythology swirling around her iconic stature. And although her recent interviews speak to the contrary (girlfriend's got a new boyfriend, one she says won't dog her like the others), reporters still comment about how she won't shake their hands, doesn't look them in the eye until vexed, then ignores them when the tape recorder clicks off. Even Blige's freshly toned Y2K+1 body is still somehow, like her entire being, voluptuously heavy. She shakes that fine hard booty in her current crunk-celebrating "Family Affair" video, but doesn't exactly walk on air. Riddled with luscious imperfections, her cry doesn't fall from a pristine heaven. Instead, this grounded black angel brings home the pain of ascending a broken earth.

The last r&b singer to sum up that much existential sorrow was Candi Staton, a Southern woman specializing in cautionary distress during disco's peak liberation hour. Blige unwittingly paraphrases Staton's key embattled sentiments—"Young Hearts Run Free" (not like my man and me), "When You Wake Up Tomorrow" (will you forget the things you said last night?), and the doozy "Victim," where she goes so far as to admit, "I'm a victim of the very songs I sing." Blige serves a similar role as Staton, reminding us that while hip-hop-primed r&b now pumps the blood of pop's body, things ain't all blingin' when it comes to matters of the heart.

Blige's perpetual reality check has a lot to do with why this, despite Aaliyah's shocking loss, has been the greatest year for female r&b since Staton's day. While Mariah Carey's Strawberry Shortcake soul still provides the template with which teen-pop cuties draw curlicues around those centerless Dianne Warren ballads, Blige's earthbound influence informs the mama-don't-take-no-mess sweetness of Destiny's Child, Missy Elliott, Blu Cantrell, Alicia Keys, Pink, Lil' Mo, Sunshine Anderson, and the new schooler Blige most admires, Jill Scott. Even with her earliest jams, Blige helped wean our ears back to adult consciousness, and it's largely because of her that the new r&b demands a greater range of emotional expression, smarter poetry, more from-the-gut testifying, and less unnecessary notes than the squeaky-clean and just plain squeaky Mariah era. Nowadays it's the Christina Aguileras and Jessica Simpsons who awkwardly oversing, while the women with roof-raising lung power keep it in check when tune or lyric demands.

Blige is not someone you can relegate to background noise. Her presence is strictly foreground. This I learned in the unlikeliest of places, a Manhattan bathhouse that somehow escaped Giuliani's cleanup campaign. That's where I fell in love with Blige's most heartbreaking album, 1994's My Life, while walking a maze of towels, steam, sweat, and skin. It must've had a hypnotizing, dramatizing, aphrodisial effect: Otherwise, I wouldn't have stayed around to hear the desk clerk play it seven times in a row. You can't imagine a better cyclical body-to-body soundtrack of bottomless longing and the quest to somehow, someday, be happy.

Blige now hears My Life as a tragedy that still typecasts her as mournful wretch. She was indeed miserable while she made this Puff Daddy-helmed milestone, and although her latest album is intended as a dancefloor antidote, its grooves have a gravity that harkens back to those days when she'd mask her beauty in hats down to her nose. Replacing 1999's Elton and Clapton cameos with Missy and Eve, No More Drama revels in 2001's clear-eyed soul sisterhood.

It begins with "L.O.V.E.," an attention-grabbing flashback to stark mid-'80s beatbox-and-voice jams. Adorned only by timpani and martial trumpeting, a chorus of overdubbed Bliges screams the title, while Blige's own tongue-twisting rap telegraphs the CD's not-gon'-pop resolve. Two songs later, a male MC, typically intrusive on her records, snarls, "Fuck the pop/it's ghetto/fuck the rock." Ironically, "Family Affair" stands to be her biggest Top 40 hit ever, more because of the changes her pupils brought to pop than because pop changed Blige. Its faster-than-gangsta Dr. Dre production returns her to the knowingly joyous place she started nine years ago with Real Love.

This is Blige's most rhythmic album ever, and even the ballads that can drag r&b down here bristle with bumping beats. And that's without "Rock Steady," the Aretha-quoting, Grace Jones-y jam between Blige, Jay-Z, and droning Lenny Kravitz guitars that rocked New York radio and mix tapes before Blige nixed it from the album as if out of spite. Blige has a history of track-listing tribulations: Last time around on 1999's Mary, she pulled the plug on the bootlegged DMX-Nas showpiece "Sincerity," while record company politics snuffed the American release of her George Michael-duet cover of Stevie Wonder's "As," a European smash and r&b radio hit regardless.

At least two of No More Drama's all-out anthems were also Mary-intended. On a recent episode of Lifetime's Strong Medicine soap, Blige appropriately lip-synched "PMS," and here she reprises her bluesy, guitar-led ode to "feelin' quite ug-ga-lee." Packed with pathos and uncomfortably funny detail, it's clearly gonna make her the toast of every afternoon talk show. Occupying that same daytime TV sphere is Jam & Lewis's title track, which ingeniously samples Henry Mancini's theme to The Young & the Restless. This could've been cornball contrivance on a Janet album, but instead sad beauty arcs from the familiar opening piano riff to the polyrhythmic electronica-injected verse, then rockets to a declamatory gospel climax. Like "PMS," it's quintessential contradictory Mary: The harder she resolves to have no more drama in her life, the more she sucks you into those complications while suggesting through her cry's scars and strain that she's never gonna escape it and neither will you.

More realistically optimistic is "Where I've Been." Producer Swizz Beatz underlines Blige's struggle for contented autonomy by piling on countermelodies that pull the tune in several simultaneous directions. The odd syncopations and stream of vigorously autobiographical lyrics make her miss some notes, lose her breath, and sprint to keep in time, so when she mentions "the mark," she sounds humble, as if cataloging just another childhood fact. Ultimately it's the songs that don't jump out on first listen—airy, jazzy jams like "Beautiful Day" and "Flying Away"—that most convincingly assure, as the concluding "Testimony" does, that "trouble don't last always."

In the past, Blige messengered truth born from romantic failure, because it was all she knew. Here she's inching beyond fear, searching for ways to represent that don't involve holding herself down. Even while dressing up in ghetto archetypes, she's always retained her individuality, one alternative method of keeping it real. Someday she may also understand another—how to come together without losing herself.


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