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Of all the R&B acts to emerge in the ’90s, perhaps none had a more original aesthetic than Mary J. Blige. Hailed as the “Queen of Hiphop Soul,” Blige is one of the few cases in music in which the superlatives-laden ad campaigns aren’t overhyping. Before Blige turned to hiphop’s abrasive soundscape to render her portraits of black women in love, serious marriages between hiphop and R&B were unheard of. The union had been attempted by the likes of rappers Salt-N-Pepa and Kid ‘n Play, but only as a marketing ploy to make hiphop more accessible. And when R&B acts such as Bell Biv Devoe and Bobby Brown tried something similar, their attempts to rhyme produced lamentable results.
Indeed, in many ways old-school hiphop acts had an adversarial relationship with R&B. On the classic “Headbanger,” Parrish Smith of EPMD spoke the mantra of hiphop acts everywhere: “Hardcore, no R&B singer.” Into this atmosphere stepped Blige with her 1992 debut, What’s the 411?, the first attempt to join hiphop and R&B that actually seemed to take hiphop seriously. Beyond featuring cameos from Kool DJ Red Alert, Eric Sermon, and Busta Rhymes, What’s the 411? was, for all intents and purposes, a hiphop album in which the lead artist did not rap.
What made What’s the 411? such a pleasure was that Blige, as she has consistently done on later albums, eschewed the didactic. She has never lectured à la Lauryn Hill, nor has she felt the need to cut a song called “Independent Woman” in order to be one. And at her best, Blige is not an R&B artist but simply an MC who sings. Her most impressive works, cuts such as “Real Love,” “Seven Days,” and her recasting of Rufus’ “Sweet Thing,” are meditative rather than self-consciously empowering. Most hiphop acts feel the need to make themselves the infallible hero of every narrative, but Blige, as demonstrated by “Real Love,” is well-acquainted with being played: “When I met you, I just knew that you would take my heart and run/Until you told me how you felt for me, you said I’m not the one.”
Despite her mainstream success, Blige never skims the top for the latest hot thing when employing hiphop beats and artists. Instead, she prefers to reach deep into hiphop’s underworld and proffer duets with such unlikelies as Cocoa Brovaz and Grand Puba. When Rhymes appeared on her debut, he was still a talent known only within the hiphop community. Biggie Smalls was but another Bed-Stuy MC when he remixed “Real Love” and “What’s the 411?.” And even in 1999, as hiphop became big business, Blige recorded with the decidedly un-hip-pop Black Star. Hiphop has worked for Blige because, unlike all the artists now seeking to record duets with rappers, she communicates a genuine appreciation for the genre. When you hear her recording with CL Smooth, you’re forced to admit that she must be a real student of the music.
Unfortunately, we live in a day when even underground hiphop isn’t really worth studying. This hinders Blige’s sixth offering, No More Drama, an album that ranks somewhere in the middle of her discography, quality-wise. Drama is a decent work of exorcism that’s at its best when Blige attacks all sorts of demonsfrom no-good men to PMSover surprisingly complex arrangements. It’s at its worst when she enlists a few lyricist friends to help give her a boost.
Typical of this shortcoming is the ballad “Steal Away,” on which Blige addresses a man who wants to whisk her away to some undisclosed location. The lyrics are nothing to die for”You know I really need you sugar/I want you to make me your wife”but the song almost succeeds because it hints at some forbidden arrangement that Blige and this gentleman have come to. It’s also helped by the Neptunes’ intricate production. But into this space of romantic subtlety steps an anonymous MC, who has seemingly never heard the song he rhymes over. “Whether your man like it or not,” he raps, “he ain’t digging it right/So I’m-a be pipin’ a lot.” Misplaced and literally phallocentric, the verse detracts from the cut to the point of rendering it unlistenable.
Album opener “Love” has a similar problem. Driven by pounding drums and a soaring chorus, the track is a typical Blige number, complete with the stern put-down of an ex-lover: “Well, you can take your life and love/And stick it up in your mainframe/Because there’ll be no more second chances.” But Blige’s own amateurish attempts at speed rapping, although not as grating as the rhyming on “Steal Away,” completely spoil the song. Equally unsuccessful is Eve’s cameo appearance on the touchy-feely “Where I’ve Been.” A sort of ghettoized version of “Heal the World,” the track never rises beyond platitudes and truisms. And Eve’s attempt at a cameo verse sounds more like a motivational lecture for inner-city kids: “Gotta change our state of life, make it worth living/God gave us voices to speak and that’s our way of giving.”
Production-wise, the album finds some success in the rap aesthetic by placing a high premium on percussion and bass. On the leadoff single, the Dr. Dre-produced “Family Affair,” Blige pushes the corniness factor with her colorblind calls for everyone in the party to hit the dance floor. But Dre’s pounding keys still give the track that element of dirtiness that a Mary J. Blige song must have. Equally impressive is “No More Drama,” orchestrated by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and driven by a sample from The Young and the Restless theme. Initially, the song smacks of a cheap loop, but the production enlists enough instrumentation that the sample becomes just another component of the meticulously constructed track.
Then there’s the album’s one slightly strange cut, “PMS.” The track is lifted from Al Green’s classic “Simply Beautiful” and features Blige explaining the symptoms of her premenstrual syndrome in detail: “Feelin’ quite ugly…/Feelin’ really bitchy…/Don’t feel like smilin’.” There’s something liberating about Blige expounding on a uniquely female experience, though she never really goes past giving a musical diagnosis. Blige has always examined the dirty realities of black womanhood, but this song falls far short of her usual incisiveness.
As a whole, the best thing that can be said about No More Drama is that it’s unequivocally a Mary J. Blige album, squarely within the tradition that she has carved out: hard-hitting music for a hard-hit woman. But the music slacks in its ability to move. The complexity of many tracks is welcome, yet even those fail to inspire. And where there is no complexitythe paper-thin, Swizz Beatz-constructed “Where I’ve Been,” the vapid, Missy Elliott-produced “Never Been”the album becomes humdrum, simply because there isn’t much in the songs that demands to be listened to. It’s this problem that points to the drawback of Blige’s drawing so much of her inspiration from hiphop: How can the Queen of Hiphop Soul make a moving album when so much of today’s hiphop is unmoving? CP