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The Boston Phoenix Soul Shine

The pop polish of Mary J. Blige

By Michael Freedberg

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  The polished, mainstream pop that Mary J. Blige presents on Mary (MCA), her third CD, should come as no surprise to her listeners. For though she's Bronx-born and a close friend of the East Coast's biggest rap stars, and was at first seen as a soulful counterpart to the wild-child blasts of East Coast hardcore rap, Blige has always pursued high gloss. Yes, on What's the 411, her 1992 debut, her voice displayed a tiny but hard-edged whine close to female rap's serpentine flicker -- but she sang deep soul blues (the biggest hit was "Real Love"), loneliness songs, and heartthrob ballads. Her model was funky emotion, not wise-ass. Her fans called her the new Chaka Khan, a woman of the world, not the 'hood. Which was not to deny her membership in the hardcore community. She was close to the Notorious B.I.G. and mourned conspicuously at his funeral. On the cover of My Life she sported a blond, Rhinemaidenish pigtail wig, nastier than MC Lyte or any of 'em. Faith Evans and many other new-jill mouth-offs took up the fad; yet the music on My Life and its follow-up, Share My World, moved Blige's repertoire even farther in the direction of well-dressed soul and glitzy entertainments.

Mary summarizes her seven-year journey from Bronx basements to professional perfection. It revels in Broadway soul and polished pop, as well as the bluesy talkouts that cling to black-pop tradition ("Your Child," a superbly written song about breaking up with a man who refuses to admit the child he's had by the "other woman" is his). The CD advances Blige deeper than ever into classic soul: Aretha joins her for "Don't Waste Your Time," so does a totally Teddy Pendergrass-like K-Ci Haley in "Not Lookin'," and Blige also visits the Philly-disco side of soul in a snappy, sassy update of First Choice's last club hit, "Let No Man Put Asunder." But Mary's most daring move is its use of white-bread, hall-of-fame rockers: Sir Elton John's "Benny and the Jets" gets reworked as "Deep Inside"; and Eric Clapton's guitar is brought aboard in "Give Me You," a song penned by "the great Diane Warren," as Blige calls her.

Hiring Warren means playing to expectations fulfilled. And fulfillment of expectations helps Blige balance her rock borrowings, enabling her to hold onto her homebody fans while singing to millions of outsiders. She deserves a hand for trying to become more than one kind of voice in a musical era when too many performers seem happy to play one-dimensional music to the already convinced or to a narrow band (racial and otherwise) of niche tastes. Still, playing standard genres, as Blige usually does, means she forfeits any chance for surprise and revelation. Her music overcomes inertia rather than exploding it. There is no place for unexpected love and scene-shaking rebellion in works by Bacharach and David ("Beautiful Ones"), Ronnie and Lonnie Wilson of the Gap Band (I'm in Love"), and Stevie Wonder ("Time").

Which means that she has to work hard to convince you that a song matters. Her strategy is basic drama rather than nuance. Her contralto rises to emotion ("The Love I Never Had"), confronts predicament ("Not Lookin' "), rebukes dishonesty ("Your Child"), and -- her special signature -- talks the details of her loneliness no matter how painful or ironic ("No Happy Holidays"). And does so with such solid tone and even-handed rhythm that when, as in "Let No Man Put Asunder," she does step into a musical form known chiefly to a cult audience rather than a mainstream one, her strength of voice and well-centered fluidity make a point of their own, even about a song in which -- as with all disco tunes -- form has no choice but to follow function.

Blige's conviction bring to mind the forthright, absolutely unskeptical loyalty message delivered by Celine Dion. For all that Blige offers soul fluidity and Dion solid sense, they share that embrace of certainty. Blige's clear diction, romantic directness, and formal conservatism contrast utterly with the oddballish, curvaceously sultry work of Erykah Badu, who is soul music to the max, bluesy, and far more outrageous a presence than Blige at her wildest. On Mary, Blige puts more stylistic distance between herself and a singer like Badu than ever. Her blunt dependability is all the reason a listener in search of music that means what it says and knows what it means needs to find a home in the work of Mary J. Blige.

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