Filed under: album, review | Tags: charlotte richardson andrews, mary j blige, stronger with each tear
Mary J Blige
Stronger withEach Tear •••
Polydor / Matriach
Mary J Blige is indisputably one the finest soul singers of the last two decades. Known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul (yes, with capitals), she’s so well loved and unrivalled that most of her fans know her simply as Mary. A difficult childhood involving sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend and an absentee father probably go some way towards explaining her later problems with drug addiction, alcoholism, abusive relationships and depression, and this troubled psyche has funnelled into her music through a voice so expressive and original that she’s often been compared to legends such as Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker, two of her biggest inspirations. With worldwide acclaim, nine Grammy awards and eight multi-platinum records behind her, you have to wonder if Blige has anything left to prove on Stronger withEach Tear (sic), her ninth album in 17 years. That she has continued to record successfully for so long is an achievement in itself, but Blige was at her strongest during the ’90s and moving from this golden decade of modern R&B into the brasher, raunchier 2000s has been precariously hit and miss.
Despite its ‘survivor’ evoking title, Stronger withEach Tear is predominantly an upbeat album, a territory that’s always somewhat shaky ground for an artist who has been at her best when expressing big, heart-shaking angst. But while the optimistic cuts on 1997’s acclaimed Share My World proved that Blige can express optimism and hope with equal passion, the problem here is that the cheeriness seems lightweight, hollow and anecdotal in the most mundane sense. Blige was such a force in modern soul because she has such a singular, uncompromising style and has, up to now, been resolutely unafraid to break away from the standard R&B remits and experiment with sounds and arrangements atypical of the genre. Unfortunately, Stronger withEach Tear brings nothing so new to the table. While the beat patterns are mostly on form (‘I Love U’ and ‘Tonight’, which evokes Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘The Message’, are strong points), a good portion of the melodies and hooks are cookie-cutter, disposable and lacking the signature Blige-ness that could have made them great.
The first half of the album floats by, leaving a brief feelgood vibe but nothing to hold onto. Guest rappers TI and Drake do nothing to deepen the distinctly pop atmosphere with their throwaway, featherweight contributions. The “eh ehs” that open intro number ‘Tonight’ sound a little Rihanna-lite, while the opening chords on ‘I Am’ recall Blige’s own hit ‘Everything’ but sadly only serve as a comparison that leaves this material lacking. Most disconcerting are the touches of AutoTune that creep into ‘The One’, so cringeworthy to hear on a voice that really needs no modern frills. There are, of course, some high points. Despite the irritating text-speak title, ‘I Love U (Yes I Du)’ is a glowing, expansive number with sensual synths and a slow, throbbing beat. ‘Said & Done’ bridges modern R&B and Blige’s own, retro-tinged style warmly, while ‘Colour’, which comes from the Mariah Carey-starring Hollywood movie ‘Precious’, sees Blige’s golden tones evoking old school rhythm and blues at its best with a goosebump-raising number recalling Aretha Franklin at her most powerful.
Elsewhere, ‘We Got Hood Love’ with Trey Songz has a classic Blige vibe, a duet which shows her at her strongest, clearly overpowering her guest who steps back with the right degree of humility. ‘In The Morning’ sets the modern pop synths aside in favour of a strong symphonic arrangement, while the sweet, tongue-in-cheek number ‘Kitchen’ sees Blige’s wry relationship-preserving motto set to choppy piano and big drums. Title track ‘Each Tear’ proudly proclaims “You’re not defined by your pain / so let it go”, presumably the central missive in an album that aims to celebrate Blige’s emancipation from the pain of her past. The problem with this polemic is that Mary’s career is built on the fact that she sings from the darker parts of the heart, almost personifying the term ‘soul’ in soul music. And though there is an element of searching and questioning, Stronger withEach Tear seems more pop-weight R&B rather than hip-hop soul. A decent effort, but nothing truly memorable.
Charlotte Richardson Andrews
Available on import only; www.myspace.com/maryjblige
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