In mid-December, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper ran an interview with Mary J. Blige, in which she said, “The blacker you are, the worse it is for you [in America]. If you’re mixed, you’ve got a shot. If you cater to what white America wants you to do and how they want you to look, you can survive. But if you want to be yourself, and try to do things that fit you, and your skin, nobody cares about that. At the end of the day, white America dominates and rules. And it’s racist.” Needless to say, that interview was a hot e-mail item, linked on countless Web sites, and the source of not a little controversy. But Blige’s candid observations were draped in unintentional comedy (or tragedy) by the posters hawking her new album, The Breakthrough, which had already papered American cities coast to coast by the time the interview dropped. On those posters, Blige is caught black-and-white style — skin lightened, eyebrows plucked and dyed, and blond hair twisted in a Heidi braid. And in the PR shot accompanying the new CD, her flowing blond locks and heavily airbrushed face reveal acquiescence, not resistance, to the cultural forces she lambasts in her quote. Granted, Blige has been rocking blond wigs and weaves for years. At least now she’s upped her hair-glue game. Maybe that’s “progress.”
Blige doesn’t much sing about the issues she discussed with The Guardian — not explicitly, anyway. But her voice has, in part, been shaped by them. Much of the domestic violence, emotional abuse and self-hatred she’s sung about from the beginning are side effects and consequences of racial hierarchy and power plays. The anguish, the exhaustion, the fury and the sadness in her vocals — even those eardrum-splattering sounds resulting from her legendary pitch problem — all seep from wounds larger and older than the first-person woes outlined in her discography. In her actual lyrics, however, Blige has rarely lifted her eyes from her own navel to acknowledge a larger world — except to thank fans who share her pain, and to offer herself as their patron saint.
The Breakthrough is so named because it’s supposedly a reflection of Blige’s newfound vocal prowess and her shedding of negativity. And it is that. Partially. But it could also easily be subtitled, “Yeah, I’m happy now . . . but remember when I wasn’t?” (And make no mistake, even happy Blige sounds like she’ll cut you.) Song titles like “Enough Cryin’,” “Gonna Break Through,” “Good Woman Down,” “Take Me As I Am,” “Baggage” and “Father in You” let you know that she ain’t straying too far from the script that’s made her rich and famous. On the spoken intro to “Good Woman Down,” Blige somberly states, “In my life, I seen it all. And now it’s time for me to pass on this knowledge to you, all my troubled sisters. This is my gift to you.” From there the song spins a tale about young Mary watching her daddy beat down her mommy, with Blige vowing that she’d never let a man lay hands on her. Except she does. Correction: She did. Now she’s a survivor dispensing advise, singing songs of devotion.
The embarrassingly facile “Father In You” (“When I was a baby/I didn’t get a hug from daddy/That’s why I need a hug from you?.?.?.”) is a somber ode to her husband; “Take Me as I Am” starts off with Blige speaking about herself in third person (“She’s been down and out/She’s been wrote about/She’s been talked about, constantly/She’s been up and down/She’s been pushed around”) before segueing into a grim first-person victory chant (“You know I’ve been holdin’ on/Try to make me weak/But I still stay strong/Put my life all up in these songs/Just so you can feel me.”). And “Ain’t Really Love” has a chorus filled with the philosophizing of high school girls recounting imbalanced love affairs for Maury Povich. What becomes clear after a while is that, despite almost all the songs sweeping toward codas of enlightenment and self-discovery, Blige is still trapped in a self-scribed iconography of assault-and-battery survivor and Lifetime movie-of-the-week champion. She keeps pumping the well of victimization and Oprah-esque heroism — not only because that’s what sells, but because that’s a huge part of how she sees herself as a person and artist.
Her lyrics are prose poems that unfold personal narratives of struggle and triumph, continuously circling back to grief and wrongdoing before tacking on bruised happy endings. Pop-psych analysis and solutions peppering the songs are meant to demonstrate growth and insight into past behavior, but what they really do is provide the professional victim’s egoistic high. In “Can’t Get Enough,” when she tells her man, “I love it when you tell me the truth about me,” what comes through is not her appreciation of his honesty, but the condensed, seemingly contradictory underlying sentiment: I love?.?.?.?me. And not in a healthy sense, but in a mired-in-my-own-shit-and-ego way. Perpetual lancing of one’s own wounds isn’t an act of healing, or even of brutal honesty. Eventually, it becomes an exercise in narcissism, and the pain recalled and the pain self-inflicted become fetishes.
But that process does raise some questions: How do you let go of that which you can’t easily release — the history that birthed you, the dysfunction that shaped you, the consequences of past behaviors that were, in truth, actually reactions to a larger canvas of cause and effect? How much should you let go?
And, to cut Blige some slack: What’s the texture of happiness when you’re still scarred, if not misshapen, by past battles? It’s not going to be simple, or simply bliss. It’s not the gift of amnesia, airbrushed memory. It’s something more complex, more weighted. Take a closer look at Blige, beyond the newly honeyed skin and white-girl hair. Her eyes don’t smile, don’t broker trust or an air of being carefree. On Breakthrough’s opening track, “No One Will Do,” she sings, “I know y’all heard before/These same old metaphors/But my love is so much more . . .” with a certain blue-tinted breeziness. But the contrast between the song’s denotative meaning and its darker emotional tones gives what could have been pop fluff the weight of ghosts, marrow-oozing awareness of the costs of her current “happiness.” It’s one of the best performances on the new CD.
But that particular dynamic between emotional and lyrical elements is rare for Blige. Usually, her on-the-nose prose (called blunt or honest by her fans) converges a little too perfectly with mournful-to-histrionic vocals, boxing in a voice that bleeds beyond borders and begs, at this point, to be attached to lyrics that are more ambitious, more ambiguous. (Her duet with Bono on a cover of U2’s “One” somewhat answers that request here, though Bono kinda sleepwalks through his performance.)
You’re left to wonder, why is it that what was done by so many artists to whom Blige is compared (Aretha, Billie, Chaka) — namely, the creation of a body of work centered on romantic pain and mistreatment — more irksome when Blige does it? The answer might be that those other artists left room for the listener to actually be the protagonist, not just a supporting character, when listening to the songs. The best artist sings from her soul and yours. But if you don’t already deeply love and (over-) identify with Blige, and aren’t completely besotted with her personal mythology, then you’re often left on the sidelines, awkwardly looking on as she bogarts the spot meant for both of you.
And unlike her politically attuned foremothers, Blige may give good press, but she continues to make art that never goes beyond six degrees of Mary. There’s no “Strange Fruit,” “Mississippi Goddamn” or “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her. The fact that she’s been called the Aretha or Nina of her generation is perhaps not the laughable stretch that it initially seemed. It might just speak volumes about our culture’s politics now, and about our shrunken requirements for idolatry and identification.
Here’s the thing, though: The Breakthrough is actually a fantastic album — most especially if taken as a standalone artifact from Mary’s career. It’s beautifully produced, full of hard beats and warm textures. The Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am, Rodney Jerkins, 9th Wonder and Jam & Lewis are among the crowd of producers who help shape a cohesive career-best for Blige. Her voice is not only stronger but also more dynamic than before; there’s a sparkling tenderness to a lot of her performances, balanced by some not-at-all-embarrassing rapping. At times, she even sounds like a young (somewhat shriller) Natalie Cole, with vintage soul-slinger Raphael Saadiq as her Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy rolled into one on the track “I Found My Everything.”
She still can over-sing like a mofo, but there are times when that absolutely works. On the future club hit “Can’t Hide From Love,” Blige attacks the lyrics like they owe her money (“Put your arms around me and don’t be shy/What you feel is a real woman/probably for the first time . . .”), riffing a breakdown lifted from the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” and making you forget that the co-billed Jay-Z is reduced to underused hype man. And the masturbatory “MJB Da MVP,” an ode-to-self that strings together titles of her past hits and references the song’s self-absorbed guest star, 50 Cent, provides these chuckle-inducing, Jerry Springer-esque lines: “Most of all, I wanna thank my fans for hanging in there with me during the bad times/And now you’re here to see me at a point in my life where I can actually call myself a queen/And for those of you that don’t like it, this is what you can do/You can do dis: You can hate it or love it, hate it or love it, hate it or love it . . .” It’s the new anthem for neck-swiveling, self-loving queens of all races and genders.