Mary J. Blige: Love & Life

Felicia Pride

Mary J. Blige

Love & Life

Label: Geffen
US Release Date: 2003-08-26
UK Release Date: 2003-08-25

In a scene from the bonus DVD supplied with her seventh album, Love & Life, Mary J. Blige argues with Puffy that something was lost on a particular song during mixing. "There is a life force in the rough [song] that disappears out of the mix," she disputes. "There is a life in these songs and the life is sucked out of it." Puffy and her fiancé, Kendu Isaacs, look at her like she is crazy, speaking in emotional terms rather than musical jargon, but it becomes crystal clear why there is only one Mary, and after her there may be none. Ever since her 1992 debut, What's the 411?, Mary's music has spoken to her fans not through complicated lyrics or music, but through good old fashion soul-bearing feeling. The songbird whose sullen sound addressed the darkest emotions of fans has settled into a new, yet unfamiliar light that is reflected by the beauty of love and life.

When Mary emerged from the streets of Yonkers, she stumbled upon a winning chemistry of hip-hop, R&B, and soul that studio imitators are still trying to perfect. An around-the-way girl that bellyached the choruses of distraught hearts for women on the block and in the boardroom, Mary harmonized the soundtrack to life's woes that incited emotional action from tears to tearing up pictures. She also smoothed out rap heavy hitters without making them soft by adding her soulful street touch to classics such as Jay-Z's "Can't Knock the Hustle", Method Man's "All That I Need", and Ghostface Killah's "All That I Got Is You". The undisputed queen of hip-hop soul rose to power through passion and honesty, without leaving her clothes behind. The abundance of life and realized pain that exudes from her eyes provides this rare closeness. Whatever you may think about her excessive use of samples, her untrained voice, or her New York style sense, (there are still women who color their hair whatever shade Mary currently rocks), you show respect where respect is due.

And when Mary and Puffy announced they were reuniting, her fans -- a partial sorority of sorts in which this writer's initiation was a broken heart -- were elated. The last time they worked together, what resulted was 1994's tremendous My Life, her most emotive work to date. Recapturing its power wasn't going to be an easy feat: Mary and Puffy would have to recreate more than just a sound, they would have to recreate a pain-stricken period in Mary's life. And we fans, who have watched her grow over the years, rejoiced on the outside, but remained skeptical on the inside with private thoughts (that we would dare not speak in public) of the end of Mary's reign.

That's because we're a fickle bunch who aren't keen to change. We admire Mary's strength to triumph over depression, drugs, and dating disasters, but we conspire in the morose fact that Mary could, without question, incite our inner pathos with the push of a CD player button. We'll still sing "all I really want is to be happy" right along with her, but now that Mary is truly happy, it's an easy cop out to say that the queen of hip-hop soul doesn't have that fire anymore.

So much has happened in her life since those early days; she's grown from dancing in combat boots and a baseball cap searching for "Real Love" to the new Mary that loves God and self. And perhaps her spirituality is the most significant change, one that prompts her to credit her love for God in songs (even enlisting gospel man, Donald Lawrence, for production on the new album) and in interviews. She isn't the first soul/R&B singer to undergo such a spiritual transition -- from Al Green to Aretha Franklin, many soul singers are reared in the church and return to it sometime in their career.

But where does hip-hop fit into the queen's new spiritual outlook? Rap artists thank God after they win awards, but many of them don't embrace spirituality on albums. Mary does. The resulting conflict of interest makes it awkward to inject spiritual awakenings alongside gun talk. Witness Love & Life's intro, where Mary thanks God (with a spiritual co-sign from Puffy) and guest Jay-Z announces what gun of choice he is currently toting.

Naturally, her spiritual awakening has affected her entire attitude toward life. She no longer stars as the victim in her song sagas; now she takes control and directs how her life advances. She first ignited this new taste for creative muses besides depression and pain on 2001's No More Drama. The title track foreshadowed Mary's vow of bypassing all unnecessary turmoil and even as most fans half-heartedly pledged the same, it was a negligible commitment in a society that breathes crises. Mary, however, stuck to her word and birthed Love & Life, a celebratory respite from the hopelessness; a retreat for those who really have trekked past the drama.

The first single "Love @ 1st Sight" samples Tribe's "Hot Sex on a Platter" and is a great representation that some of our ghetto superstars are growing up: Guest Method Man admits, "Nowadays I'm calmer and if you take a look at my life / No more drama." Reminiscent of Drama's "Family Affair", "Love @ 1st Sight" is following in it's footsteps to the club dance floor with its playful tone and head-bobbing bass line.

"It's a Wrap" is for ladies looking to sing along with "You came home late last night / You smelled just like the scent of her." "Feel Like Making Love" captures the passion of intense, down-home, haven't-seen-one-another-in-months love-making. And "Special Part of Me" proves that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. With her signature passion, Mary transfers any remaining lovelorn into her new found amour and marks the end of her search for a real love. On the DVD, Mary cries tears of fulfillment in the booth as she sings this song.

This Puffy/Mary combination reflects the queen's What's the411? roots but it isn't an authentic My Life reunion. If they we're truly aiming for that My Life sound, they're missing an intricate link: Chucky Thompson. Thompson was the puissant production force behind the bulk of My Life, and his absence on Love & Life is like having a Three's Company reunion without Chrissy. That's not to say Love & Life is severely lacking; the Bad Boy hit-man of choice this time around is Mario Winans, and Puffy came through with A-list samples from artists such as Barry White, Atlantic Star, Kool & the Gang, and the Jackson 5. (If you thought there would be more original material, than you don't know Puffy or Mary.)

The important issue for Mary this time around is translating her new attitude into heart-gripping vocal emotion. "My fans just really want to hear the feeling that was in My Life, you know, that sound that was in My Life," she says on the DVD. "They really want to hear that and I really want to hear that again, too."

Love & Life isn't the long-awaited sequel to My Life. And for Mary, the person, this is a good thing. It means that she has matured and moved forward. How can you not look at her growth with the esteem of a proud parent? She is grounded, happy, and remarkably, our girl is in love -- a day that many fans thought we'd never see. For selfish reasons, we expected that Mary would always live with her sister, wallow in loneliness, and churn out those tear-filled tracks. But when a woman finds love it's hard, if not useless, to continue singing about that man who did her wrong, a theme that Mary pretty much owned for a large part of her career.

Taken collectively, Mary's albums chronicle her life, and Love & Life is the next chapter, her tribute to the different loves that complete the life of Mary J. Blige -- love of God, love of self, and love of partner. Her poignancy comes from allowing audiences into her soul like few artists do, even if it doesn't translate the way it should within the business of music. Fans and critics alike should applaud her transformation because even in her new role of survivor she speaks in the universal language of emotion. And with Love & Life, Mary continues her trendsetting path, understanding that what works best for her is doing her, in whatever life stage she may be experiencing at the moment.





PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.