'Real Love No Drama' Is Longer on Praise for Mary J. Blige Than Context
One hopes Real Love No Drama will not be the last word on one of the most culturally significant black stars to emerge since hip-hop went pop in the late ‘80s.
Real Love No Drama: The Music of Mary J. BligePublisher: University of Texas Press
Length: 176 pages
Author: Danny Alexander
Publication date: 2016-03
The career of Mary J. Blige is remarkable by any measure. She’s been a reliable and constant presence in black pop music since her 1992 debut What’s the 411?, with its hits “You Remind Me” and “Real Love”. She’s grown from an unpolished, streetwise kid into a beloved icon with crossover appeal. Her legion of devoted fans has followed her personal growth, and continues to draw inspiration from her songs of love: the wanting and needing of it, the being hurt and betrayed by love gone wrong, the exhilaration of finding happiness in love, and the resilience to keep the faith in love no matter what.
Yet, for all her success and memorable hits, it’s easy to take her for granted. After all, she’s been doing this for 25 years and counting. Over that span, she’s released 11 studio albums, a live album, two concert DVDs, a greatest-hits collection (with four new songs), a Christmas album, and a soundtrack album, plus several soundtrack singles, cameo appearances on numerous other singles and remixes, appearances at high-profile charity concerts, a season as an American Idol judge, and a long string of film and TV acting credits to boot, so it’s not like she’s ever been away long enough for anyone to miss her. While her messages have evolved as she’s matured, her music never much varied from the mainstream R&B / hip-hop zone until 2014’s The London Sessions, done with UK pop- and club-minded producers.
Because there’s a ton of her music out there, much of it sounding like it was all cut from the same general cloth, it’s easy for less devoted listeners to settle for their handful of Blige favorites and not deep-dive into her entire catalogue. Further, because mainstream black pop has always attracted less attention from music critics and writers in non-black media than hip-hop (especially if said pop isn’t breaking an artistic mold), many people probably have no idea how much high-quality work she’s actually done.
Blige deserves much better. The staggering size of her catalogue would be reason enough. More than that, Blige has come to mean something real and specific within the American pop landscape. Her core work speaks to the personal struggles many black women have faced, both in their relationships and with their personal self-esteem, with a keen specificity. She has drawn from her life experiences to make music that has lifted up countless others.
From day one, Blige’s music has spoken with a genuine and relatable honesty, integrity and authenticity. She’s managed this while standing at, and helping to define, the intersection of hip-hop and R&B, two musical strains in which honesty, integrity and authenticity have always been crucial. Her initial lack of technical prowess as a vocalist was more than made up for by the unmistakable sincerity her tone conveyed. She’s become a better singer over time, but that tone and its sincerity remain.
Not for nothing was she nicknamed "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul", an allusion to the rawness and passion no female R&B singer had conveyed since Aretha Franklin in her “Queen of Soul” heyday. Where Chaka Khan a generation ago gave us the anthem “I’m Every Woman”, Blige’s overarching theme could be summed up as “I’m Every Sista”.
While her work has never been as close to the hot-button cultural and political zeitgeist as Beyoncé’s has been the last few years, she has lent her time and talent to important causes, and no one would dare question her commitment to female empowerment.
Longtime music writer Danny Alexander attempts to elevate Blige’s critical stature with Real Love No Drama, the first book-length look at her oeuvre. While Blige’s work is absolutely worth serious and thoughtful consideration, Alexander’s effort falls short in its lack of context and background into her life and influences. It ends up reading like a compendium of breathless Blige album reviews, each of them a gushing tribute from a writer who’s as much knowledgeable fan as friendly interpreter, if not more so.
Not all of that is Alexander’s fault. Blige apparently offered little support to his reporting efforts, leaving him to interview people less central to her career, or rely on magazine articles and other secondary sources. The most revealing things he discovers concern her family’s roots in and around Savannah, Georgia, where the Blige surname is especially common. Alexander suggests her artistic influences can be found here and traced through to her upbringing in New York City, but because her family didn’t talk much either, all he really can do is suggest it, not show it.
Real Love No Drama is strongest when covering Blige’s early years on the scene, her evolution as a singer in control of her artistic choices, and how she outgrew her rough-hewn image to emerge as a sleek, well-fashioned icon without losing her street appeal. But that road wasn’t easy for her. There were some rocky personal relationships, chemical addiction issues, and an erratic reputation as a performer. Alexander didn’t have much to work with in trying to explain how she got over all that. Mostly, he just recounts her career in album-by-album, song-by-song detail.
Alexander does make an effort to place Bilge within the continuum of black pop’s strong women, going back to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. This helps correct the imbalance that doesn’t treat mainstream black pop, especially from black female singers not named Aretha Franklin, as being innovative, transformative or otherwise noteworthy. That’s an oft-noted tendency of many white music writers; Alexander notes how The London Sessions attracted praise from critics who had barely raised an eyebrow to the rest of her work.
He might have had a more substantial book had he made more of how Blige embodies the relationship between black music and non-black gatekeepers to its critical perception. He could have worked harder to place Blige’s music within black pop’s lineage, and maybe also could have dug further into her importance to contemporary black female life. He touches on these weighty threads -- and he truly appreciates what Blige means to her core audience -- but such considerations seem to get subsumed by his non-stop laundry list of her achievements.
Maybe another biographer or critic will come along someday with greater access and a more expansive way of telling Blige’s story. Or maybe Blige someday will tell her story herself. Either way, one hopes Real Love No Drama will not be the last word on one of the most culturally significant black stars to emerge since hip-hop went pop in the late ‘80s. For now, this serves as the baseline for giving Blige, her music and what she represents their respective due.