Maturity is Mary J’s Cross to Bear

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Mary J. Blige is one of a dying breed: R&B singers that make R&B songs. Not Hip-Hop or Pop songs masquerading as R&B or “Neo-Soul” music, but the kind of R&B that successfully unites all of the above as good R&B should. While we wait with bated breath for Faith and Toni to drop the album they may or may not be crafting, or finally come to terms with Kelly Price going Gospel for good, Mary keeps hanging onto a genre that is up to its elbows in hallowed dirt.

That’s very noble of her, but it sure must be lonely.

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Opening with a trifecta of Wonder Woman power anthems, Growing Pains finds Mary J. Blige at yet another point of self-realization. She’s satisfied. She wants to be treated like a woman. She wants you to know that she can do what she wants, because she’s grown. The thunderous, muscular “Grown Woman” is her answer to Jigga’s “30 Something”, with her casually tossing out words like “Valentino”, “Michael Kors” and “Yves Saint Laurent”, but reminding us that she sports them with the kind of class only someone her age can be bothered with. You have to wonder if she’s asserting herself among her younger colleagues, taking what could be construed as base materialism and using it to point out that she’s been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and knows how to tuck it in.

In that respect, Growing Pains is nearly thematically sound, but tends to suffer from a lack of sonic cohesion. Mary’s at her best when she takes it back to the old school with the disco-driven “Just Fine” or the Neptunes-helmed “Til’ the Morning”, which channel classic Michael Jackson and Taana Gardner respectively. The album could’ve benefited from way more “way back when”, but for every foray into the past, there’s a grim reminder that Mary was also around for recent musical conventions that are gradually wearing themselves thin, namely Ne-Yo.

That isn’t to say Ne-Yo isn’t a fine composer, he’s probably the best songwriter in popular music right now. But his songs are so distinctly him you almost feel like he’s arm wrestling with Mary over the handful of tracks he was involved in. Only on the album-defining “Work in Progress” does Mary’s own identity manifest itself in full.

A good portion of Growing Pains is handled by The Dream and Tricky Stewart, who manage to exercise a great deal of musical range while contributing to it’s overall unevenness. “Shake Down”, her duet with fellow Bad Boy refugee Usher, recalls the kind of 90’s quiet storm slow jam that Mary herself helped define. But “Come to Me”, with it’s soft-rock influences and somber, pleading arrangement sounds better suited for the new and not-so-improved Alicia Keys. For anyone that thought Mary sounded better when she was depressed hasn’t heard Mary when she’s trying to depress us.

Probably the boldest moment here is her remake of “Hello It’s Me”, which differentiates itself from Groove Theory’s version with it’s triumphant horns and calculated dusty groove echoes. While she doesn’t present the same amount of gentility that Ron Isley once did, she still manages to carry us back to that era, reiterating the scope of her influences and laying the smackdown on her contemporaries. This is Mary at her most “grown” on the entire project. Unfortunately, it’s only available to those of us that copped the bonus version.

Since Growing Pains followed so closely behind The Breakthrough, it’s difficult to tell just how much she’s changed in the past couple of years. Most of it is left to our imagination. The Alpha Female declarations seem to be aimed at the current state of urban music, with Mary dipping her toe in the over-crowded kiddie pool long enough to realize she’d rather make waves in an all but abandoned sea called Rhythm and Blues.

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