A few weeks ago, my sister/friend Tracey and I were discussing Beyoncé. I wouldn’t call us die-hard Beyoncé fans – we don’t follow her every move and we’re not a part of the Beyhive, but we do appreciate her overall talent.
You can’t deny that she is one of the best artists, songwriters and overall entertainers in the 21st century.
Our discussion centered on where she takes her career next. Listen, I applaud the way Beyoncé owns her body and sexuality. There have been discussions and debates on her role as a feminist, and what she means to the advancement of women’s rights.
You may disagree, but Beyoncé’s body and looks are a focal point of her entertainment empire. While I am a huge lover of Beyoncé (a fantastic concept album), in many of the videos, skin and sexy outfits were front and center (see Partition, Drunk in Love, Rocket and Blow).
But as she ages, how much longer will she continue – or be able – to use her body as a means to showcase her talent?
What, you might ask, does all of this have to do with Mary J. Blige?
During our talk, I realized that perhaps Beyoncé should take a good look at the successful evolution of Mary J. Blige.
Journey back with me to 1992 and Mary’s What’s the 411 album. The songs were centered on or about a man, while love was reoccurring theme. Mary was searching for a real love, what she would do to get and/or keep a man, or what he was going to do without her love.
At the time, Puff Daddy, Puffy, Diddy, Sean Combs – you know who I mean – labeled her the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.” An appropriate title at the time as What’s the 411 was influenced heavily by hip-hop, which was the hot genre of the moment.
She had the look of the early 90s down as well. Who can forget the baseball cap and the X jersey, which was paired with combat boots in the Real Love video?
Two years later came the classic My Life, a more personal album. Raw emotion filtered through every song, and I love how it concludes with Be Happy, which to me was a declaration by Mary of the direction she was moving towards.
As she’s grown, so has her music and style of dress.
Fast-forward 20 years to 2014. Mary releases The London Sessions – her 12th studio creation.
Production-wise, this album stands in stark contrast to What’s the 411 and pretty much the rest of Mary’s other albums.
Opening with Therapy, the first line says it all: “Why would I spend the rest of my days unhappy?”
Therapy’s message is quite clear – there’s no need to spend life sad and alone because therapy two times a day will get you through!
The rest of the tracks are a combination of self-assurance, honesty and testimony (well, all of Mary’s albums since My Life are essentially testimonies).
Mary’s vocals are clearly what the producer’s wanted us to focus on. In reading through the CD jacket, I noticed Mary is a writer on 10 of the albums 12 tracks, which explains why most songs seem to come from a place deep within herself.
The beginning music on a few songs are simple – a piano on Doubt and Not Loving You, and a guitar on When You’re Gone. Not much more is needed because you end up concentrating on the passion behind each sung word.
On repeat for me is Doubt. The chorus: “I made it to the end/I nearly paid the cost/I lost a lot of friends/I sacrificed a lot/I’d do it all again/Cause I made it to the top/I can’t keep doubting myself anymore.”
Right behind Doubt is Whole Damn Year. Somehow, Mary managed to capture my current feelings with her lyrics. “Yeah, I seem good on the surface/But I’m a mess, I’m a mess underneath.”
That’s right Mary!
At the end of Whole Damn Year, you’re privy to a conversation she’s having where she’s explaining what she thinks people want to see as far as getting through her struggles – the peaks and valleys – and how we get to see that she is in fact, a human being.
Personal responsibility is the theme of Long Hard Look, while Right Now, My Loving, Nobody But You, Pick Me Up and Follow are all get-out-of-your-seat and dance songs.
The more I listen to The London Sessions, the more it‘s on its way to becoming my favorite of Mary’s releases. I still rank Growing Pains as the one I would choose if I absolutely had to pick only one, but the songs on The London Sessions are starting to sway my mind.
Mary has transcended the title Sean Combs gave her; she is simply a Queen. The crown that was bestowed upon her so long ago is finally well-earned.
She’s earned it through triumph and tragedy; she’s battled drug addiction and depression, and survived all the negative tabloid gossip about her personal life.
Mary’s been down; yet, she chose not to stay there. She stepped out of bounds, took and chance and headed to London because, as she explained in an interview with the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph, “The goal was to go over to London and do something really different, something people have never seen me do before.”
She definitely succeeded.
As she continued in the same interview, “They seem to know who they are (referring to British singers Adele and Jessie J); they don’t have an identity problem. They don’t seem to let anyone tell them what they should look like or sound like.
“There’s a freedom of expression there that’s missing in America now. I didn’t feel constricted by what a label wanted, or have anyone giving me that chat in my ear. It felt like total freedom.”
Kudos to Mary, who, at age 44, is still taking chances and (finally) doing what she feels is best for her.