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Reunited

Mary J. Blige Joins Up With Puffy Again For Love And Life, But This Time She's a Very Different Mary

By Felicia Pride | Posted 9/10/2003

In a scene from the bonus DVD supplied with her seventh album, Love and Life, Mary J. Blige argues with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs that something was lost on a particular song during mixing. "There is a life force in the rough [version] that disappears out of the mix," she disputes. "There is a life in these songs, and the life is sucked out of it." Combs and her fiancé, Kendu Isaacs, look at her like she's crazy, speaking in emotional terms rather than musical jargon, but it becomes ice clear why there is only one Mary and after her there may be none. Ever since her 1992 debut, What's the 411?, Mary's music has spoken to her fans not through complicated lyrics or music, but through good, old-fashioned soul-bearing. The songbird whose sullen sound addressed the darkest emotions has settled into a new, yet unfamiliar, light.

When Mary emerged from the streets of Yonkers, N.Y., she stumbled upon a winning chemistry of hip-hop, R&B, and soul that studio imitators are still trying to perfect. An around-the-way girl who bellyached the choruses of distraught hearts for women on the block and in the boardroom, Mary harmonized the soundtrack to life's woes that incited emotional action from tears to tearing up pictures. She also smoothed out rap's heavy hitters by adding her soulful street touch to classics such as Jay-Z's "Can't Knock the Hustle," Method Man's "You're All I Need," and Ghostface Killah's "All That I Got Is You." The undisputed queen of hip-hop soul rose to power through passion and honesty, without leaving her clothes behind. The abundance of life and realized pain that exudes from her eyes provides this rare closeness. Whatever you may think about her excessive use of samples, her untrained voice, or her New York style sense, (there are still women who color their hair whatever shade Mary currently rocks), you show respect where respect is due.

And when Mary and Combs announced they were reuniting, her fans--a partial sorority of sorts in which this writer's initiation was a broken heart--were elated. The last time they worked together resulted in 1994's tremendous My Life, her most emotive work to date. Recapturing its power wasn't going to be an easy feat: Mary and Combs would have to re-create more than just a sound, they would have to re-create a pain-stricken period in Mary's life. And we fans--who have watched her grow over the years--rejoiced on the outside but remained skeptical on the inside, harboring private thoughts (that we would dare not speak in public) of the end of Mary's reign.

That's because we're a fickle bunch who aren't keen to change. We admire Mary's strength to triumph over depression, drugs, and dating disasters, but we conspire in the morose fact that Mary could, without question, incite our inner pathos with the push of a CD player button. We'll still sing "All I really want is to be happy" right along with her, but now that Mary is truly happy it's an easy cop-out to say that the queen of hip-hop soul doesn't have that fire anymore.

So much has happened in her life since those early days; she's grown from dancing in combat boots and a baseball cap searching for "Real Love" to the new Mary who loves God and self. And perhaps her spirituality is the most significant change, one that prompts her to credit her love for God in songs (even enlisting gospel man Donald Lawrence for production on the new album) and in interviews. She isn't the first soul/R&B singer to undergo such a spiritual transition--from Al Green to Aretha Franklin, many soul singers are reared in the church and return to it sometime in their career.

But where does hip-hop fit into her new spiritual outlook? Rap artists thank God after they win awards, but most don't embrace spirituality on albums. Mary does. The resulting conflict of interest makes strange bedfellows for Love and Life's spiritual awakenings: Witness the album's intro, where Mary thanks God (with a spiritual co-sign from Combs) and guest Jay-Z announces his current gun of choice.

Naturally, her spiritual awakening has affected her entire attitude toward life. She no longer stars as the victim in her song sagas; now she takes control and directs her life. She first ignited this new taste for creative muses other than depression and pain on 2001's No More Drama. The title track foreshadowed Mary's vow to bypass all unnecessary turmoil, and even as many fans halfheartedly pledged the same it was a negligible commitment in a society that breathes crises. Mary, however, stuck to her word and birthed Love and Life, a celebratory respite from the hopelessness, a retreat for those who really have trekked past the drama.

The first single, "Love @ 1st Sight," samples Tribe's "Hot Sex on a Platter" and shows that some of our ghetto superstars are growing up: Guest Method Man admits, "Nowadays I'm calmer and if you take a look at my life/ no more drama." Reminiscent of Drama's "Family Affair," "Love @ 1st Sight" follows in its footsteps to the club dance floor with its playful tone and head-bobbing bass line.

"It's a Wrap" is for ladies looking to sing along: "You came home late last night/ You smelled just like the scent of her." "Feel Like Makin' Love" captures the passion of intense, down-home, haven't-seen-one-another-in-months lovemaking. And "Special Part of Me" proves that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. With her signature passion, Mary transfers any remaining lovelorn feelings into her new found amour and marks the end of her search for a real love. On the DVD, Mary cries tears of fulfillment in the booth as she sings this song.

This Combs/Mary combination reflects the queen's What's the 411? roots, but it isn't an authentic My Life reunion. If they were truly aiming for that My Life sound, they're missing an intricate link: Chucky Thompson. Thompson was the puissant production force behind the bulk of My Life, and his absence on Love and Life is like having a Three's Company reunion without Chrissy. That's not to say Love and Life is severely lacking; the Bad Boy hit man of choice this time around is Mario Winans, and Combs came through with A-list samples from artists like Barry White, Atlantic Starr, Kool and the Gang, and the Jackson 5. (If you thought there'd be more wholly original material, then you don't know Combs or Mary.)

The important issue for Mary this time around is translating her new attitude into heart-gripping vocal emotion. "My fans just really want to hear the feeling that was in My Life, you know, that sound that was in My Life," she says on the DVD. "They really want to hear that and I really want to hear that again, too."

But Love and Life isn't the long-awaited sequel to My Life. And for Mary, the person, this is a good thing. It means that she has matured and moved forward. How can you not look at her growth with the esteem of a proud parent? She is grounded, happy, and, remarkably, our girl is in love--a day that many fans thought we'd never see. For selfish reasons, we expected that Mary would always live with her sister, wallow in loneliness, and churn out those tear-filled tracks. But when a woman finds love it's hard, if not useless, to continue singing about that man who did her wrong, a theme that Mary pretty much owned for most of her career.

Taken collectively, Mary's albums chronicle her life, and Love and Life is the next chapter, her tribute to the different loves that complete the life of Mary J. Blige--love of God, love of self, and love of partner. Her poignancy comes from allowing audiences into her soul like few artists do, even if it doesn't translate the way it should within the music business. Fans and critics alike should applaud her transformation because, even in her new role of survivor, she speaks in the universal language of emotion. And with Love and Life, Mary continues her trendsetting path, understanding that what works best for her is being herself, in whatever life stage she is experiencing at the moment.

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