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‘Mary’: Mary J Blige’s Soulful Return To Her R&B Roots

No longer masking her ornate bravado with hip-hop samples, ‘Mary’ saw Mary J Blige follow her 70s muse and take a plunge into neo-soul.

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Mary J Blige Mary Album Cover

Throughout her career, Mary J Blige has received many titles to describe her unique brand of soul. On her fourth studio album, Mary, the “queen of hip-hop soul” stripped away her usual contemporary sounds, opting for a classic R&B approach. No longer masking her ornate bravado with hip-hop samples and Uptown vocals, Blige took a plunge into the newly established world of neo-soul, harkening back to essential 70s-styled R&B. The album’s third track, ‘Deep Inside’, provided its sentimental thesis: Blige wished her listeners “could see that I’m just plain ol’ Mary”.

Listen to Mary right now.

A new chapter

Released on 17 August 1999, Mary signalled a new chapter not only in the singer’s life, but in her musical evolution. In the three studio albums leading up to the album, Blige earned her place in the industry by fusing uptempo hip-hop swagger with rough-hewn vocals that unearthed the pain and passion of black womanhood – whether that was searching for ‘Real Love’ on her New Jack Swing-tinged What’s The 411?, or declaring ‘I Can Love You’ (better than she can) over the mafioso beat of Lil’ Kim’s ‘Queen Bi__h’, on Share My World. In the 90s, Mary J Blige became an iconic voice and representation of Generation X street culture, style, slang and popular music.

At the end of the decade, both R&B and hip-hop experienced a renaissance, as the genres rapidly merged towards a new alternative. By 1999, neo-soul had pushed its way to the forefront of mainstream R&B thanks to the likes of Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Maxwell. Blige had previously collaborated with another neo-soul pioneer, Lauryn Hill, on ‘I Used To Love Him’, from the latter’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, and on Mary, Hill returned the favour, writing the album’s soulful opener and singing background vocals on ‘All That I Can Say’.

A blissful state

The first half of Mary documents a blissful state of being in love, with neo-soul acting as the engine that powers through that euphoria. As the follow-up to ‘All That I Can Say’, ‘Sexy’ rekindles Blige’s hip-hop soul instincts with a sophisticated lounge groove meant for mixers, while fellow Yonkers native Jadakiss jumps on the track with a verse.

‘Deep Inside’ finds the singer at her most vulnerable and introspective over Elton John’s 1973 classic ‘Bennie And The Jets’, lamenting the obstacles that her fame creates for her relationships. Hardly a sample or interpolation, when you’re Mary J Blige, you just get Sir Elton himself to come and play piano on the track for you. Perhaps even more surprising than that, however, is ‘Beautiful Ones’, which begins with the winding guitar strings of Earl Klugh’s 1976 instrumental ‘The April Fools’ and loops repeatedly over the lush melody as Blige opines about her lover’s qualities.

An old soul

Since her start, Blige always had a knack for drawing on the healing remedies of old-school R&B, most notably on her cover of Rufus And Chaka Khan’s ‘Sweet Thing’ and her use of a jazzy Roy Ayers sample of ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’ on ‘My Life’. This thematic evolution continues on Mary, with its more mature lyrics and the expansive resonance in her singing voice. Blige draws upon 70s R&B and soul for the album, in particular her favourite songs she grew up with.

The first act of Mary concludes with a cover of the 1979 Gap Band classic ‘I’m In Love’. The song highlights a sunshine motif that recurs throughout the first half of the album, as Blige hits her highest octave on the line “The sun will shine for me and you”.

A painful return

Following ‘I’m In Love’, Mary takes a turn as Blige once again taps into a darker pain that drives so much of her music. Dubbed a “a virtuoso of suffering” by The New York Times, Blige has also derived art from her most scarring experiences. Rather than dress up that sorrow with theatrics and her usual flashiness, however, on Mary, Blige lets things sink in, keeping the arrangement simple, which allows her to be more vulnerable.

On the consciousness-raising ‘Time’, Blige takes aim at the world and her armchair critics while referencing two classic songs, first sampling Stevie Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’, from the Motown icon’s 1976 opus, Songs In The Key Of Life, and flipping the script on The Rolling Stones as she laments, “Time is not on our side.”

A turbulent relationship

Blige’s on-again-off-again relationship with fellow R&B crooner “K-Ci” Hailey, of K-Ci And JoJo, has been a core subject throughout her work. Plagued with infidelity, jealousy, domestic violence and drug abuse, the turmoil from their toxic love has brought the singer some of her most memorable deep cuts, including ‘Memories’, on which she declares, “Valentine’s Day will never be the same.”

Aretha Franklin weighs in and advises her soulful progeny on ‘Don’t Waste Your Time’, before K-Ci himself appears on ‘Not Lookin’’, confessing, through back and forth banter, that he doesn’t want to fall in love with Blige, regardless of his true feelings. The pain continues on Mary’s stand-out ballad, ‘Your Child’, which sees Blige confronting her disloyal partner and the woman he impregnates.

By the time you get to ‘No Happy Holiday’, Blige realises she’s still in love, despite the heartbreak, and in true diva fashion she advises herself to “wake up” in order to not lose ‘The Love I Never Had’, singing over the funk blare of the Jimmy Jam- and Terry Lewis-produced live band.

All-star guests

Swapping out guest MCs for rock’n’roll legends on Mary, Blige recruited Eric Clapton for the slow-burning ‘Give Me You’, an organ-heavy olive branch of forgiveness. Slowhand saves the fancier fretwork for later, quietly supporting Blige until he fully unleashes his guitar mid-way through the song. Blige then closes out the album with a disco-influenced cover of First Choice’s 1977 single, ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’.

By the end of Mary’s 72-minute run, the queen of hip-hop soul has proved that she is, in fact, the queen of R&B. The album not only showcases her ability to weave various motifs throughout her music, but also her skill at tackling different branches of the genre: past, present and future. Most importantly, it achieved what R&B music is all about: using rhythm’n’blues to express your own story of love, hurt and redemption, and having the audience feel every note.

Mary can be bought here.

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Listen to the best of Mary J Blige on Apple Music and Spotify.

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