There’s little, if any, denying that Mary J. Blige is one of the greatest singers of our time. The proof is in the consistent Number One albums and singles, six Grammy awards, seven multi-platinum records and fifteen years of love from the public, critics and fellow artists. Since her 1992 debut - the modern classic What’s the 411 all the way to 2005’s stunning The Breakthrough Mary J. Blige has helped to redefine R&B, and more importantly, been an artist that uses her gift to lift spirits, touch lives and bring her heart, soul and truth to those who are willing to listen.
Mary’s eighth studio CD, Growing Pains, comes on the heels of Mary’s best-selling anthology Reflections (2006). It’s also her first CD of new material since The Breakthrough debuted at Number One, selling over an astonishing 700,000 copies its first week - setting a record at that time as the best opening week for a solo R&B female artist in SoundScan history. The album’s first single, “Be Without You,” also made chart history by holding down the Number One spot on the Billboard “Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums” chart for a record breaking sixteen straight weeks; making it her biggest hit, so far, of a career filled with them. In addition “Be Without You” made its way into history books when it became the longest running Number One song on the R&B chart in over 40 years. As if that wasn’t achievement enough The Breakthrough and “Be Without You” earned an astonishing eight Grammy-award nominations with Mary winning three.
Ask what fans can expect from Growing Pains and Mary J. Blige is characteristically upfront. “They’re going to get a sense of what my state of mind is and how I view the world,” she says. “And hopefully, most of all, they’re going to hear just the sincere honesty and love that I have for them. I’m always putting myself out there like, look. I love ya’ll. I got ya’ll. I’m rocking with ya’ll. So that’s what they’re going to get, that commitment. I hope they’re going to be very happy with that.”
You can hear Mary’s own happiness and strength all throughout Growing Pains. Working in partnership with some of the best in the game e.g., Tricky and Dream, Neyo and Stargate, The Neptunes, Dre and Vidal, Jazze Pha, Sean Garrett, and featuring guest appearances by Ludacris, and Usher, Growing Pains is the sound of an artist in love, in touch, in control, and not afraid to show it. More than anything Growing Pains gives you straight up Mary letting the public share her world, and delivering a message that says, Love yourself. Believe in yourself and kick negativity to the curb.
Mary makes her message loud, clear and seriously funky on the hit single “Just Fine,” produced by Jazze Pha and Tricky and written by Mary and Dream. The single makes for Mary’s 18th Top Ten single on Billboard’s “Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs” chart, tying her with Mariah Carey for the most Top Ten songs on the chart in the Neilson Music Era (from 1993). “Just Fine,” a celebration of life, gives you Mary fierce and (as the video shows) glamorous. “Sometimes it feels like you’re having this miserable time, like all 365 days of the year are tough. But then, you get one of those days; maybe when your hair is great, or you’re not stuck in traffic; where it’s a ‘just fine’ day. At some point,” Mary laughs. “You’ve got to have one or two of those.”
The party and positivity keeps on keeping on with the rump shaking second single “Work That” - currently featured on an Apple iPod commercial. “Work That” is upbeat, strong and deals with finding the good in you. “When I meet a woman who doesn’t know what to do about her weight or her hair I always says to her ‘whatever it is that you have, make that work for you, work what you got.”‘
Mary takes her own advice on the non-stop jam “Till the Morning.” Produced by the Neptune’s and written by Pharrell, “Till The Morning” takes you way back by referencing ‘80’s club classics. Mary states: “It’s about whatever your ‘til the morning’ is. If it’s hanging in the club all night, if it’s lying in bed with your man and enjoying him all night - that’s your ‘till the morning’.”
Love’s the force behind “Roses” - another collaboration with Tricky Stewart and The Dream. Mid tempo, emotional and grown, “Roses” is about having to work to make it work, the real in relationships, and that it’s not always all roses and candy.
Relationships are also the theme on the sultry “Shake Down,” a mid-tempo duet with Usher that has the feel of those classic R& B partnerships.
Throughout Growing Pains you hear Mary pushing herself in ways she never has: especially vocally. There are jazzy inflections, girl group coquettishness, nuanced phrasing: a full range of tones and textures.
She also continues to mature in the studio: taking control of the total recording and creative process and doing so with confidence and chops. “Making records is different than when I started because now I know what I want and there’s not fifty people running the show. Now (husband/creative partner) Kendu Isaacs and I run the show. Kendu’s ear is good, my ear is good, and we’re honest with each other.”
Needless to say, when you have that type of success all eyes are on the next release. Mary keeps it all in perspective by focusing on what really matters: the journey, the growth, the love. And as always the music and the fans. “I’m still trying to heal and get better and that’s what Growing Pains represents. It’s about accepting that there’s pain that goes along with growing and change. No pain, no gain.”
Typically, artists have looked to their successful debut when they recording a “sequel” project. But that’s not always the case as sometimes, it’s the sophomore record that truly catches a buzz. Case in point: Mary J. Blige, who admittedly did well with her debut, too. But she chose her second record, 1994’s My Life, to give the sequel treatment. My Life II: The Journey Continues (2011) is the singer’s tenth album and first since 2009’s Stronger With Each Tear. The second My Life features collaborations with the likes of Diddy and Lil Wayne, both of whom appeared on lead single “Someone to Love Me.” According to USA Today, Blige said that “this album is a reflection of the times and lives of people all around me.”