Many would say that the best art is borne out of angst and pain, and out of the emotional necessity to cathartically express and release anger and hurt. When Mary J. Blige released What's the 411, her most powerful and memorable ballads were those through which you could feel her pain. Since 1992, we have seen MJB grow from a girl to a woman while going through trials and heartache, and telling her story through music.
But, Mary's newest release Growing Pains is different – the woman feels empowered and her struggles are waning. I do applaud MJB for the messages of empowerment, love, struggle and redemption. However, halfway through the album I lose interest in the display of showmanship, and I [selfishly] long for the Mary J. Blige of old. Still, the journey on which she takes her listeners is endearing, and a statement of triumph for those of us who have watched Mary's public struggle and her development into a strong and confident woman.
No matter what you are looking for in Mary J. Blige's music, her "telling my story" style is still part of it. To be sure, this album is not weak or completely lacking in angst. It definitely has its strong points and demonstrates MJB's personal contradictions despite her growth. But, when your theme is love, there is always the bitter with the sweet. The songs meld one into another and create a suite of seamless music that ebbs and flows much like any relationship, whether it be with art (in Mary's case music), with self or with another person.
The album opens very strong with songs in which MJB affirms that she is in a better place than ever before. In Work That, she lets young girls know that if there is anything they should learn from her it is to work what they've got and to always be themselves.
Let em get mad
They gonna hate anyway
Don't you get that?
Doesn't matter if you're going on with their plan
They'll never be happy
Cause they're not happy with themselves
The message is genuine, heartfelt and real – the only people who will tear you down are those who loath themselves.
Just Fine, the lead single from the album finds MJB's voice bouncing on a dance track, and bragging about how happy she is with her life, flaws and all.
So I like what I see when I'm looking at me
When I'm walking past the mirror
Aint worried about you and what you gonna do
I'm a lady so I must stay classy
Got to keep it hot, keep it together
If I want to get better
This is a tailor-made message for anyone who has lingering questions about whether or not MJB is still unhappy.
The contradictions are revealed in songs like Hurt Again where Mary paints a picture of a wounded woman who guards her heart very closely – maybe too closely at times. In the title track Work In Progress (Growing Pains), MJB challenges listeners to look past her celebrity and answer the question whether she looks complete. She is just like everyone else – trying to figure out this thing called life and suffering through ups and downs.
My favorite song on the album is What Love Is where the joyful melody is juxtaposed against the reality and duality of overwhelming emotions.
And it feels like joy
And it feels like pain
And it feels like sunshine,
Feels like rain
An excuse for dying,
Reason to live
And if you don't know that's what love is, love is
Can't live with it or without it, it is sweet misery – all at once beautiful, horrible, magical and terrible.
Growing Pains is no great triumph of musical artistry, but it is very likely a personal triumph for the Queen of Hip Hop Soul. Not yet a favorite in my music collection, I can already tell that it will grow on me and always serve as a reminder that we are all riddled with contradictions and personal struggles. The key is working with what we have to overcome.
This article has been cross-posted to the new ListenInMusic.com