Mary J Blige
My Life II … The Journey Continues (Act 1) (released November 21, 2011)
A few weeks ago, I had a debate with one of my followers regarding the legacy of Lupe Fiasco.
Yeah, it was a slow day on Twitter.
Anyway, I told dude that Lupe lost his luster after that lackluster Lasers (say that five times fast!). The guy said it wasn’t fair to overlook years of stellar work just because of one speed bump.
My feelings for Mary J. Blige are very similar to Lupe. Without question, Mary is one of the premier voices in music and one of the few R&B artists from the 90s to be almost unanimously exalted as legendary. Mary’s first three albums were absolutely phenomenal – if Georgia Mae was around back then, all three likely would have received my coveted 5 star rating. But by the turn of the century, Mary’s content became very hit (2005’s The Breakthrough) or miss (2009’s Stronger With Each Tear). With every mediocre release, Mary’s star slowly dimmed in my eyes.
My Life II has been touted as a throwback to Mary’s most acclaimed album, 1994’s My Life. Usually, I hate “sequel” albums – they seem more like a marketing ploy than a true return to an earlier work. But to my surprise, My Life II successfully conjures up memories of a bygone era while remaining fresh and current.
The first single, “25/8,” might have the goofiest lyrics of the year – Mary loves her man so much she needs an extra hour and day to express it. I need 13 months/367 days to pick apart all that’s wrong with that title. But I can’t hate on the song itself. It’s upbeat and much more assessable than some of the tracks on Beyonce’s 4 and is definitely a call back Mary’s ’90s sound.
The first half of the album shares the energetic pace of “25/8.” “Next Level” is perfect for the steppers, with Busta Rhymes bringing his usual excitement. That man could make a funeral entertaining. “Feel Inside” borrows the beat from what sounds like Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph” (sorry, my, ahem, advanced copy didn’t come with liner notes…) to provide yet another head-nodder for old heads like me.
The album’s biggest surprise is Mary’s remake of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody.” Now before you crazed Chaka fans scream “blasphemy,” you’ll be happy to know that Mary does the track justice. It certainly doesn’t surpass the original but it’s a respectable trip down memory lane.
And speaking of the sad old days, about halfway through the album Mary’s smile quickly turns upside down and we get reintroduced to the persona that made Mary famous – The Woman Fed Up. And it’s no surprise that this is when Mary shines.
Over “No Condition’s” tribal drums, Mary admits to “waving the white flag,” as she’s ready to step out on her man. Of course one song later, she’s crooning with Drake about putting up with “Mr. Wrong” and asking “Why” she’s always on the drama carousel, with Rick Ross adding hunger to her heartbreak. They’re typical Mary themes that longtime fans will love, but with a fresh sound that will catch the ear of the young’ns.
The best of this crop is easily “Love A Woman,” a duet with Beyonce which serves as a tutorial for men on how to please their women. It sounds like it was lifted from Mary’s ’97 Share My World album, back when she was in her prime.
Before you brothers shake your head at Mary for making men look like the bad guys, check out “Empty Prayers” and “Need Someone.” Mary’s pleading vocals on the former sound more defeated than angry, while the later offers words of advice for women in destructive relationships. Instead of incessant man-bashing, Mary reminds listeners to take control of their love lives instead of pointing fingers. It brings everything back full-circle – she teaches the listener that those same happy feelings from earlier in the album will only manifest if you love yourself as much as your man.
Yes, My Life II definitely brings Mary back full-circle. Sure there are a few lulls (the inspirational but dull “The Living Proof,” the so-so “Midnight Drive”) and she’s certainly faced artistic speed bumps in the past but this album is a reminder that Queen of Hip-Hop Soul still reigns.
Sorry I doubted you, Mary. Your star continues to shine.
Best tracks: “25/8,” “Love A Woman,” “Mr. Wrong”
4 stars out of 5