Mary J Blige Review (2006)
Known for a life of drama as well as amazing music, Mary J Blige has been a constant and bold presence on the urban scene since the early nineties, earning the title ‘Queen of hip hop/soul’ along the way.
From the early days working with then up and coming producer Sean Combs (who later went on to be known by various monikers, including Puff Daddy), she then went on to bring swing classics such as Mary Jane (All Night Long), to poignant collabs like the Wyclef duet 911, to more mainstream projects with people like George Michael, Sting and U2. She has worked with the best of the best over a variety of genres, from Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill, to Nas, DMX, Elton John and Eric Clapton. Through it all, Mary has also lived a colourful life, accused of possessing a heavy temper and once of attacking a journalist. She has also developed a rep as a ‘don’t mess with me’ character, like when she slammed PETA Animal Rights Activists (“What gives them the right to destroy someone’s coat because their opinion is that you shouldn’t wear animals? Understand what I’m saying?”)
Her tumultuous relationship with Jodeci member K-Ci (more recently of R’n’B outfit K-Ci and JoJo) was subject to much discussion, as were her well-publicised drink and drug binges, sometimes overshadowing her phenomenal voice and undeniable talent.
2006 heralded Mary’s long awaited come back. Rumoured the year before to be bringing out a Best Of project, she instead came with ‘The Breakthrough’, an impressive body of work, which reflected her growth and maturity after years of struggle and fast paced living, and was very reflective in tone.
So it was only a matter of time before the soul Queen brought out a Greatest Hits collection, showcasing the best of her seven studio albums, over a period of 16 years in the industry.
The time has come people. The 18-track disc is now ready and is set to hit shelves on December 4th 2006. But what do we make of it; does it take us down memory lane? Not exactly if I’m totally honest. Not that I’m knocking Mary’s uber-impressive back catalogue, I just think that the tracks here could have been more carefully chosen to reflect the songs that Mary’s fans have grown to love her for. I was really looking forward to revisiting early classics that I’d grown up listening to, such as ‘You Remind Me’ and ‘Changes I’ve Been Growing Through’, as well as banger ‘All Night Long’. But they are notably absent here, as is ‘What’s the 411?’ the title track of her debut album which first introduced The Notorious BIG to the world. Other omissions include 1997’s ‘Everything’ as well as the exceptional cover of Aretha Franklin’s classic ‘Natural Woman’, which she recorded between albums for the TV show ‘New York Undercover’, some ten years ago.
There is a fair amount of brand new material present, such as the very nicely produced ‘We Ride’, the pleasant John Legend duet ‘King & Queen’, as well as the reflective first track, entitled ‘Reflections (I Remember)’, which starts off with the lyrics;
‘Back before the record deal and the cars and the cribs and the way that things took off/I was singing at Lucy’s on 125, just trying my best to get on/Back when me and Puff and BIG was kids and I knew Jodeci/I was young and tough and fresh and rough and it was all a dream…’
This sets the tone for the album, which was obviously compiled on the basis of sales rather than true Mary classics. This somewhat unfortunate fact means that comparably poorer songs such as ‘Not Gon’ Cry’ are included at the expense of better ones. We do get a few genuine moments of nostalgia however, with the up-tempo ‘You Know’, ‘Be Happy’, as well as the Method Man collab ‘I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By’, which won them a Grammy back in 1996.
Other stand outs include the George Michael hit ‘As’, the Dr. Dre produced 2001 dance floor classic ‘Family Affair’, a new version of ‘My Life’ (again going into reflective overdrive) as well as tracks from her latest album, such as the brilliant ‘One’ (with U2), and possibly one of 2006’s biggest tunes, the powerful and poignant ‘Be Without You’.
The album ends on the similarly reflective note it started on, with latest single ‘MVP Da MVP’, which features 50 Cent over the beat made famous by The Game. Going through all her albums and touching on what was going on in her life while she was recording/releasing them, Mary emerges triumphant and proves that throughout all the heartache and struggles, both in the industry, in the public eye and personally, she has remained on top, a strong woman if ever there was one. This is also cemented by other powerful manifestations of Mary’s inner strength that are on here, such as ‘No More Drama’ and ‘911’, which are sung with striking emotion and depth, demonstrating her vocal chords to brilliant effect.
This album, although highlighting some of Blige’s biggest and most known hits, leaves a little to be desired, and my best advice would be, if you don’t own it already, is to go out and get Mary’s entire back catalogue and judge for yourself what her biggest tunes are. Then make up your own compilation of her best work.
A striking thing about this album is the amount of new material present; eight tracks out of the eighteen are actually recent offerings. Only one or at best, two, tracks are taken from early work from her six studio albums prior to the release of ‘The Breakthrough’. Thus, perhaps a slightly misleading picture is painted when the disc is presented as a retrospective (as the title suggests) spanning over her entire career.
The thing with Mary J Blige is, that her music is extremely personal and touches you in a very individual way. For a record company to put together a collection of her ‘greatest hits’ is perhaps doomed to failure along the same lines as the Aaliyah Best Of project, which left many key tunes off the play list. Despite this, the album is a welcomed addition to my Mary collection, if mainly for the new material on here. All in all this is an incomplete yet adequate selection of MJB classics, certain to do really well over the Christmas period.