No Pain, No Gain

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Life can be only what you make it
When you’re feeling down, you should never fake it
Say what’s on your mind and you’ll find in time
That all the negative energy, it will all decease

Mary J. Blige has built a career off of channeling her inner demons to create some of contemporary soul music’s finest recordings, leading to her amassing a huge fan base that’s used her music as the soundtrack to their own lives. Over the years, Mary’s been quite candid about her struggles with love – of self and others – addiction, depression, and overall happiness. Not that we needed her to: My Life, her most celebrated album, is chock full of love songs, though all sounded incredibly melancholy, an obvious sign of the pain lingering in the artist behind them. Many eager listeners shared Mary’s yearning to let go of all that ails her with the hopes of obtaining the happiness each of us is owed.

Since that album she’s told us several times that there was no more drama in her life – even going as far to spell it out in an album title – though not many believed her until she finally seemed to breakthrough. “Be Without You,” one of the most successful singles of her career is just as honest as those released a decade prior, only this time she wasn’t trying to convince us that she was happy — we could hear it for ourselves. Because of that, The Breakthrough, reignited Mary’s chart muscle after Love & Life – which saw her dip back in time and reconnect with Diddy – largely fell on deaf ears.

But now that Mary’s finally let go, she’s alienated a faction of her fan base, who vocally express their displeasure with Mary’s new direction, pressing for more down and out Mary over back flipping out of glee Mary we’ve come to see in recent years.

What does Mary think of this? Judging from the line, “No time for moping around, are you kidding?” from the first single off her new album, Growing Pains, the aptly titled, “Just Fine,” she could care less. This new Mary wants to stop wallowing in her own self-pity and enjoy her life. On the energetic single, she even boasts, “And I’ma still wear a smile if it’s raining.” That’s quite a contrast from the old Mary, who painted the notion of wearing a smile to guise her pain as quite the burden on “Everyday It Rains,” a gem from 1995’s The Show soundtrack.

No longer second guessing herself at every turn, Mary’s not only happy, she’s content. With her age. With her appearance. With where she is in life. This is evident in tracks like the self-love promoting, “Work That,” which features Mary stressing to young women everywhere to be themselves and love who they are. Let’s hope the message resonates with the current crop of new artists male and female alike, who thanks to an image-obsessed music industry, work in an environment where individuality has become an anomaly.

If you haven’t noticed by now, Mary’s in love and finds a way to champion it throughout the album. It sounds great on most songs, like “Stay Down,” but falls a bit flat on others like “What Love Is.” The latter makes the mistake sometimes done by Mariah Carey: Singing about love in the same context it’s discussed in a Sweet Valley High book. Still, Growing Pains shows Blige is in love and through songs like “Talk To Me” and “If You Love Me,” we’re assured she’s dedicated to preserving it.

Take your time, baby don’t rush a thing
Don’t you know I know that we all are struggling
I know it is hard, but we will get far

Despite Mary’s transformation, old habits die hard, and as previously mentioned, not every Mary fan is on the happy train, so the Queen of Hip Hop Soul manages to acknowledge for them and for herself that the fight towards bliss is an ongoing struggle with “Roses” and “Work In Progress (Growing Pains).” Both songs finely articulate that despite Mary being in better place, it took a lot of fighting to get there, and it requires work (and the right attitude) to stay there.

While Growing Pains is a good addition to the Mary J. Blige catalog, listening to it makes me think those who long for the days when Mary sang of struggles over triumphs may be a bit misguided. In some respects, while Mary has no doubt evolved both personally and professionally, much of the music released over the years is a tamed version of the hip hop soul genre Mary is hailed for creating. This is a result of her growing popularity in the mainstream. She now caters to a varied audience that includes fans of the days she sang with K-Ci Hailey and those who are only recently hopping on the Blige bandwagon after seeing her perform with Bono. Pleasing everyone requires quite the balancing act, but Growing Pains confirms that while it’s not yet perfected, it’s doable.

If you looked at my life and see what I’ve seen
Oh you will see that I’m so blue
Down and out, crying everyday, don’t know what to do or to say

Thirteen years ago Mary sang about happiness almost as if it were almost an unattainable goal. Fortunately she’s proved otherwise. Whether or not you can stomach her now cheerful demeanor, you have to applaud someone that’s pulled themselves out of their own nadir. She’s on a new journey, and if Growing Pains is any indication, it looks to make for an interesting ride.

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