Mary J. Blige, "Strength Of A Woman"/The Art of Growing Old [My2¢]
We back with some 2 cents. Mary Jane has a special spot in my heart (well I mean, where doesn't she?) because I'm twins - that's right - with her career. Why do I say that? Because What's the 411? was born the same year I was. Now, I am well aware of the logical reasoning or lack-thereof behind this above statement of mine... let's just move on. It's been a well since I laid my fingers upon these buttons up on here.
I wanna touch on this concept of "pop phenomenon". Ever since the late 80's/early 90's, when Black Music really began to dominate in the pop world, and R&B elements and influences started to appear across all American popular music in more apparent forms, i.e. the vocal styles, arrangement, percussive presence, etc., a number of popular female singers, predominantly female African American powerhouse singers who could sing the air out of a stadium, became the leading force of the pop industry. These women, led by the likes of Whitney (R.I.P.), Mariah and MJB, captivated the music world with their versatile vocals and self-presentation and took over a huge chunk of the world of the popular music. They became international idols, the very definition of what a "diva" is (in one way or another), and the human embodiment of what the 90's was about musically. Such careers were paved by the journeys of early legendary soul singers like Chaka Khan and Diana Ross, but these 80's/90's singettes were some of the first female black pop musicians to really reach the wide general public as their main audience and achieved the unthinkable commercial success that they did. People were just blown away by their vocal abilities and performance styles. Now, some 20+ years later, let's see where these 3 are at. Everybody misses Whitney; Mariah recently did this so I guess she's doing well, and so is her voice; and Mary might just be the only one out of these 3 that have been holding it together well enough to still be talked about once in a while.
Now, I wanna preface this by saying, to achieve fame and pop status is one tough accomplishment, so even if you've only been recognized for a couple of years, that's success (I guess in theory); but career longevity is a-whole-nother ball game. While there are a million things you need to do to become successful in the first place, there's a million things you need to avoid in order to even get a chance to remain relevant. There is already a tremendous gender inequality when it comes to aging as a star, and I could give you a ratio of how many male singers/musicians have maintained fame over the age of 50 compared to their female counterparts, but I'm not a numbers nerd so I can't, and that's just the unfortunate truth about the evolution of mainstream music. Gender as a confounding factor aside, I've taken the time out to summarize the 3 major types of aging as a musician that I think cover the majority of how people who got famous by doing music get old:
1. You became famous using one distinct style and staying true to it. You're a multi-talented musician, and you've been able to maintain your artistry by being able to do multiple musical things at once and relatively well. Your music is thus very recognizable and respectable for the most part, but it's also pretty one-dimensional. Your shit's popular. Your music is generally considered "true music", and your fans consider themselves "true music fans" with good taste. As time passes by, the taste of the general public shifts, and you've displayed an inability or a reluctance to shift gears along with the industry. You're still doing what you passionately believe in. People still recognize you and respect that you're one of the best when it comes to what you do, but what you do just ain't rocking any more. Your fans never left you, but they also grow old and don't pay as much attention to your art as they do on their mortgage and their children's college tuition. And that's it. You fall off the map. You're remembered, but you're not remembered to still be around. Examples? Brian McKnight, Musiq Soulchild, Boyz II Men, Mos Def.
2. You became famous because your music was cool. Matter of fact, it's so cool, people can't seem to pick out one thing uncool about it. And it stays cool. Like the type-1 people, you're also multi-talented. You're heavily in charge of your own music. You write it, you arrange it, you produce it. Your style is particular and defined. When the industry shifts, you also shift, but you don't shift in the exact same direction as the industry does. You evolve on your own terms. When it comes to fans, you don't care about them. You don't hate them, but you also don't love them, because you're making music to satisfy your own creative needs, and you have this superior belief in your own ambition that's never affected by what those who love your shit might want from you. You're never *famous* famous. And you're not particularly prolific, but when your shit comes out, it brings about a motherf*****g ruckus. You remain this gem, because first, your talent can't be contained, and second (more importantly), you never chased fame. You chased your music, and fame came to you. Examples? D'angelo, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Jill Scott.
3. You became famous because you had ONE HUGE talent. You worked with industry people that helped make you. You were famous- and I mean FAMOUS. People 'round the globe know you and scream over you. You're the one of the biggest names that graced the earth. You're not in charge of your own material so much, but you own it. When you get up on the stage, you perform the hell out of it. You're far bigger than the two previous types. When the industry shifts, you shift EXACTLY how it does. New Jack Swing is in style? This is how YOU do it. House/techno starts taking over? You stop using all the acoustic instruments in your music. Trap is the haps? You tap it. Ok, so now you've managed to stay one of the biggest names. People always hear of what you're doing now, but you're not who you used to be. But who did you use to be? You never really had a distinct style. Now, maybe you lose your voice a little. Maybe you don't milly rock as hard as these teenagers do. You're still a huge pop star, but you lose your edge. And you never really established a style unique enough for people to remember you that one way. So people still remember you, but they don't remember you. Examples? Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, and let's bring back to whom I was supposed to talk about today, Mary Jane Blige.
It became clearer in Strength Of A Woman that Mary is trying to incorporate what's in right now into her music. in "Thick of It", she hits the triplet-rhythm mumble-like tone established by Migos and Future in her main melodic line over a trap beat. She enlists the help of DJ "We Scream the Best" Khaled in the more contemporary-sounding Hip-Hop joint "Glow Up", a song that's similar-sounding to what else we're hearing on the charts these days, but the melody is just as bland as those songs as well, and the legendary Mary J. Blige just isn't shining like the queen she is on tracks like these. Similar instrumentation and beats can be heard on "Indestructible" and "U + Me" and frankly throughout the album. There are some stand-out tracks, like "Set Me Free", a more soul-centric joint with a melodic focus and classic instrumentation, and "It's Me", a track that's pretty turnt (with a sample that I just cannot name out loud, but it's a pretty famous beat). Strength Of A Woman, what was supposed to be a concept-album, lacks the strength that the singer clearly wished to demonstrate through her music. Sonically, it's a good album. The songs all sound fine, but I find me asking myself when listening to it: if you switch out Mary's vocals with those of another singer, let's say Ashanti (-__- why Steve why), pretending that she can hit some of the higher notes, would I be thinking, hmm this reminds me of a Mary J. Blige track?
No knock against Mary J. I've always been a fan, and "Real Love" and "Just Fine" are among the songs that can get me going. But even legends like her can't escape the truth of making art, and that is, be in charge. Control your own music. If you can't 100%, then do at least one thing, write it, or arrange it, or produce it yourself. If you don't, where's the identity? What separates your current album from your last one? Even for someone who has achieved such a status, Mary J. Blige can't hide the fact that she has always been a powerhouse singer whose artistry changes along with the markets. Where credit's due though, it takes a special kind of talent to be flexible enough to maintain relevance. To sum it up. At the end of the day, we remember the music of someone like Prince for Purple Rain, Sign O' The Times, the guitar-playing, yet in 20 years, we're going to remember the music of Mary J. Blige just for who she was as a person, but her artistry itself might be an afterthought.