There’s a special kind of freedom in stepping out of one’s own shadow, especially a lauded one that has sprawled out across decades. When recalling Mary J. Blige’s staggering catalog, her name has long been linked to the idea of the worst of things. Whether it’s reeling from a bout of heartbreak, betrayal, abuse, self-deprecation, or inexplicable sadness, a Mary J. Blige song – ideally from 1994’s My Life or 1997’s Share My World – playing in the background feels most appropriate for the occasion. It’s damn near impossible to sing along to brooding anthems like “Not Gon’ Cry” without a scrunched face and impassioned sway. When a 16-year-old Tamera Mowry belted Blige’s “I’m Goin’ Down” on ‘90s sitcom Sister, Sister, matching the R&B singer’s heartbreak, we felt that. Aside from “dancery” Mary, sad Mary is our favorite Mary.
As evidenced by her huge commercial success and countless awards, Mary’s misery was something we’d come to love on wax. It became her calling card. However, one eventually tires of weeping and wailing. The queen of hip-hop soul made peace with pain and used her album, Growing Pains, to focus on living her best life instead.
While the lessons of her past may have hurt, they no longer crippled her. On this LP, Mary’s strides were more sure and proud, and less pained. With plenty of fresh hands in the production pot – Tricky Stewart, Jazze Pha, StarGate, The Neptunes, Chuck Harmony, Andre Harris, and Vidal Davis – on top of familiars like Bryan-Michael Cox, Sean Garrett, and Eric Hudson, Blige had a bit more bounce to work with.
Take “Just Fine,” the album’s Kool-Aid sweet lead single, for instance. The dance-heavy aunty anthem (kicked off with an enthusiastic Woo!) pushed her new-year-new-me mindset to the forefront. “No time for moping around, are you kidding? / And no time for negative vibes, ‘cause I’m winning,” Mary sings, undefeated. All that feel-good energy was meant to be shared. Mary pulled the ladies further into her triumphant orbit with the sassy “Work That”: “Na na, work what you got / I’m talking bout things that I know / Na na, work what you got / It’s okay, show yourself some love.”
Her wants and needs as it pertained to her body, her heart, and her belongings, were unapologetically made known (“Feel Like A Woman,” “Till The Morning”). And what would a Mary J. Blige album be without mention of love? When Growing Pains was released, Blige had been happily married to her manager (and now ex-husband) Kendu Isaacs for four years. That didn’t stop her from using “Roses” to dish out her tucked away struggles, though: “Sometimes I just wish you’d just put / Your arms around me / When I’m feelin’ so / So, so very needy / But instead you just turn your back / And say, ‘Suck it up!’ / Oh, you don’t know how I’m feelin’ right now.”
The upbeat album didn’t sit well with everyone – critics complained of grating affirmations and fatigue from how preachy and poppy it leaned – but Growing Pains struck enough of a chord to rake in its fair share of accolades. Not only did the album debut at No. 2 (then climb to No. 1) on the Billboard 200, but it also won her Best Contemporary R&B Album at the 51st Annual Grammy Awards in 2008. Something was connecting.
At its best, Growing Pains gave validity to the conflicting energies of a complex woman. As women, passion and anger, love and lust, care and dismissal, self-confidence and self-consciousness all exist within us. Those are truths worth flaunting. Traces of this ethos, whether intentional or not, have trickled down into some of 2017’s new school R&B singers. It’s present in the whimsy of Solange, the intensity of Jazmine Sullivan, the frankness of Kelela, the brashness of K. Michelle, the sass of Kehlani, and the self-awareness of SZA.
Like Blige’s “Work in Progress (Growing Pains)” reiterates, the transparency of sharing one’s peaks and valleys, no matter how messy and unfiltered they may feel, is a beautiful and liberating thing.
Look in my eyes
Tell me what you see
Do you see perfection in me?
To you, do I look complete?
Now take one more look past my celebrity
That’s where you’ll find the real me
To you, do I still look complete?
The past handful of years have proven that today’s R&B torchbearers are about that life. Push personal truths to the forefront. Toss refinement out the window. Be like Mary: just tell it like it is.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017.