Mary J. Blige - Growing Pains

Posted 8 years ago

America loves a good disaster. We just can’t seem to get our fill of tales of struggle,...

Growing Pains Album Review

America loves a good disaster. We just can’t seem to get our fill of tales of struggle, downfall and vice, the grittier the better. It’s the reason Britney Spears’ train wreck of a life is the object of endless fascination, Lil Kim got her own TV show, and Amy Winehouse’s ongoing self-destruction is the subject of constant coverage. It's just human nature to be more attracted to stories of hardship; who wants to listen to songs by a happy, successful person moving through their uneventful life without incident? Consequently, our need for drama puts some artists in a difficult position: their appeal fades away as their success grows (a phenomenon I broke down in my 50 Cent review).

No one, and I mean no one, knows that paradox better than Mary J. Blige. The undisputed Queen of R&B has been pouring out her heavy heart to for eight albums now, then she had a Breakthrough, figured out how to put her own health first, and is now the picture of a confident, self-possessed woman on her new album Growing Pains. Ms. Mary has already rightfully earned what I refer to as “Denzel Washington status,” meaning everything she does is automatically worthy of your hard-earned cash, it’s just a matter of figuring out where their latest project ranks in their legendary catalog. Under that criteria Growing Pains is Mary’s most joyful album in memory – that’s also why it’s not a classic.

The hip-hop based jams of MJB’s What’s the 411? days have been replaced by inspirational pop-centered fare, starting with the lead single Work That. Producer Neff-U lays down a can't fail foundation for Mary to drop some verses that should be required listening for teenage girls everywhere: “There ain’t a man alive who can take it from me.” You tell ‘em Mary. Just Fine takes the good times to another level with a beat that’s the epitome of everything you want from a R&B party jam: a clapping beat that demands dance floor participation while Mary bring all the vocal joy you can handle. This is the song J-Lo was trying to do on Brave, turns it takes someone who can actually sing to pull it off.

Throw on Runaway Love and listen to a woman with a voice so soulful grown men have to pretend they’ve been chopping onions. Mary reunites with Luda for the banger Grown Woman, except this time she’s not running away from anything. Mary’s learned to own her sexuality and swagger, thankfully producer Dejoin and songwriter The Dream give her a sonic landscape to rep for all the grown and sexy women. Oh, and Luda’s verse is dope, but you already knew that. On the flip side, the Usher duet Shake Down may be one of the most disappointing tracks in memory. Both singers are at their best when battling through broken relationships, see Usher’s Confessions Part II or Mary’s Be Without You, but on Shake Down they’re both as happy as wide-eyed teenagers. There’s literally no way this song could be bad with the vocal ammunition those two fire, but you can’t help but dream about how truly incredible Shake Down could have been.

Mary may have decided to put the past behind her, but Growing Pains still has its moments of darkness, and unsurprisingly they’re the most compelling songs on the album. Fade Away takes a piece of Stargate-produced R&B gold I could picture Michael Jackson singing on, if he weren’t completely f***ing insane, but the Queen of R&B shows why she’s a better vocalist than the King of Pop ever was with a dynamic performance that cries, “It’s starting to rain again, don’t go away, what have I done?” When Jay-Z talked about making the song cry, he was talking about Fade Away. Similarly, Ne-Yo contributes some absolutely stellar production work on Smoke, a complexly layered sythns and strings jam Mary absolutely kills. Anyone can say they’ve had a hard life, but when a singer opens their mouth you find out if they really know pain. The blues are either in you, or they’re not, and Mary has enough soul to fill the speakers of an entire country with her voice. That’s why the man in me is genuinely happy she’s finally found her peace, but the music lover in me can’t help but wish Mary has a few more lonely nights. And yes, I feel like a terrible person for writing that.

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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