As Queen Mary settles into survivaldom, sloughs of despond become mere obstacle courses, overcome by deft pole-vaulting. Her problems with drugs and alcohol formed chapters of a familiar narrative, one in which the pieties of the 12-step program were rewritten as a deluxe, jittery, go-on-girl version of The Four Agreements. It’s impossible to accuse Mary J. Blige of cynicism, though; it isn’t that she’s impervious to irony, but that she defines it as a series of unfortunate incidents, as Alanis Morissette once did. Since 2001’s Family Affair, Blige has sung as if she knew all about black clouds on rainy days. Just don’t remind her about flies, much less the chardonnay.
The title of Growing Pains says a lot about how these days Blige takes her cues about love and loss from ’80s sitcoms. But as her acting chops diminish, her command over plush, slightly jagged contempo r&b improves. Although she yields to couplets like “Feelin’ great cuz the light’s on me/Celebratin’ the things that everyone told me” on “Work That,” there’s a sense in which Blige, like Oprah, wants to share her treasure. If Mary could, she’d buy every listener a Cadillac, a wish confirmed by “Feel Like a Woman,” a rather nuanced ode to selfishness that’s nevertheless as direct as a drill sergeant’s command.
Lest we forget that Blige’s dominion ranges over the land of hip-hop, Ludacris, like Fiddy on 2006’s The Breakthrough, drops by on “Grown Woman,” to lesser effect. Ne-Yo and Stargate add their usual clickety-clack minimalism. Producers Tricky Stewart and the Dream add some of that sawtooth-synth action on “Just Fine,” interpolating what sounds like the sax hook from Steely Dan’s “Peg” and a repeated chorus stutter. Growing Pains could use more of this insouciance, or another song that harnessed all her gifts as well as Breakthrough‘s “Be Without You” did. Confusing confessions with wisdom, Blige would be more fun if she’d shut up for a while and luxuriate—and we know she understands what that word means—in the gorgeousness of a voice that’s as full and declamatory as ever. “I gotta start enjoying myself regardless,” she admits, as if she knew the score. Growing Pains, meet The Real World.