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.