As the coffee slogan used to go, “MJB tastes good when it should”. Unfortunately in this case, MJB hasn’t tasted good in awhile, it’s that coffee that has been in the pot for too long, and even when there’s a moment in the cup with a good amount of flavor, you just wish you didn’t sip.
I of course am not speaking of coffee, but am using to describe the musical MJB, Mary J. Blige. Stronger With Each Tear (Geffen) starts and ends with hints of the Mary she used to be. The opening track, “Tonight”, has her representing “me, myself & I” as she prepares herself for a good night ahead. After that it’s flatline. Blige has been “happy Mary” since her third album, and really since the success of “Not Gon’ Cry”, and nothing against that, but she no longer has the rich bluesiness that made her who she is. Keep in mind that I’m not saying that she remains R&B’s Billie Holiday or Janis Joplin, but then again it was Blige herself who said there was no more drama in her life. Now she comes off like a PTA mom, and the stories in her songs are just boring.
Or if they’re not boring, they’re poorly written. Here’s an example from “Kitchen”, which has her using kitchen metaphors as advice to a man:
See, I’m sorry but i’m have to shut them burners down down down
So we can keep it cool
Cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool, yeah
See, I don’t need no extra ingredients
There’s not enough cabinet space for two two two two two two two two
To be honest, if you listen to it while imagining it as being a long lost Motown song, or really something Clarence Carter or Ruth Brown would have done to perfection, there’s humor. But there’s a slightly cheesy quality when Blige seems to sing it with force, which is unnecessary.
Speaking of Motown, “In The Morning” is her Northern Soul nod, and oddly enough it’s boring, maybe because everyone else from Amy Winehouse and Solange Knowles has done it before, and better. Fortunately she saves the best for last in “I Can See in Color”, one of the deepest songs I’ve heard her do in awhile where she manages to reach a dark corner Prince has perfected in the last 30 years. I think a Blige/Prince collaboration would be great, but here it’s as if Blige remembered and admits to the darkness she used to sing about so well, and brought it back to say “this is why I was, this is still a part of who I am, let me sing this… but with courage”. It’s the Mary that made me a fan after loving the greatness of What’s The 411? and finding My Life to be her ultimate masterpiece.
Maybe Blige is comfortable in being automatic, in not having a need to create masterpieces anymore. I still cringe sometimes when she sings with too much force, as if she wants to show a bit of a church vibe and she never gets there without stumbling. She’s not about being smooth, she’s Mary and fuck if she cares what anyone thinks, she’ll yank off her earrings and throw blows if need be. But she’s also a grown woman who has lived much more, experienced so much, and perhaps she doesn’t feel a need to revisit the greatness others still seek in her music. Maybe Blige has found her comfort zone, but at least with the bookends on this album, she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. “You Remind Me” indeed.