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Lyrical transgressiveness isn’t exactly rare these days; as everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Michael Jackson has proved, the F-word isn’t just for punk bands, Schooly-D, and Miles Davis’ autobiography anymore. So the most stunning, effective use of profanity on record in the 2Pac era came with Mary J. Blige’s ostensibly milder contribution to the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, “Not Gon’ Cry.”
The Babyface-masterminded track was a luxury vehicle, to be sure, but hardly a lush-life celebration; if anything, the song was a sorrowful curse on the falsehoods of upper-class contentment. The plain-spoken monologue of a workaholic jerk’s spurned, saddened wife, “Not Gon’ Cry” peaked with one line that Blige wisely chose to bleed rather than spit: “I shoulda left yo’ ass a thousand times.” The rest of it was also perfect for the meld of ache and ‘tude Blige has projected from the jump (1992’s What’s the 411?). Rather than stuff her lines with showy streams of notes like too many post-Patti LaBelle divas, Mary J. sings the song. Even when she breaks into melisma, it feels like the direct result of an overflow of emotion and not the bad habit of a vocalist steeped in It’s Showtime at the Apollo!.
Reprised at the end of Blige’s lengthy (68 minutes) new album, Share My World, “Not Gon’ Cry” seems a little out of place. Like the 1994 My Life, Share engages in lots of self-affirmation in between bouts with drama, fate, and the enemies of loveespecially when the star takes pen in hand, as on “Keep Your Head.” Here, the positive stuff culminates in the penultimate cut, “Our Love,” an old Natalie Cole single in which Blige finds some familiarity and solace. Coming after such a natural happy-happy end to the record, “Not Gon’ Cry” feels tacked on, even though it’s probably the best thing on the disc. Better it should have been stuck somewhere in the middle, or at least preceded by a few seconds of silence, like on those Elvis Costello reissues that respect the artist’s intent.
That’s nitpicking, though. Although the spiritually peaceful stuff occasionally seems Xeroxed from My Lifeespecially “Searching”‘s simple wish to “be happy,” which admittedly carries more weight coming from the mouth of the high-maintenance Blige than from Bobby McFerrinit does lend some real-life depth to the proceedings. And while comparisons to Aretha may seem obvious or premature depending on your POV, Blige’s complexity does sound born of a similar clear-eyed intelligence and troubled personal life.
Depth of audience response is another mark of the way the Queen of Hiphop Soul’s impact parallels that of the Queen of Soul’s in her Atlantic heyday. Share My World sold nearly a quarter-million copies in its first week on the streets, where anticipation for new Mary J. is always high. That sort of power almost redeems the standard-issue boasting of the album’s “Intro,” which reels off a list of award-show honors after touting Blige as “the most innovative female singer of our decade…the most soulful,” as if the evidence of her greatness weren’t about to fly straight from the speakers into our faces. (Only, praise the Lord, in a world where Toni Braxton releases records nearly four years apart and Brandy has been busier on a sitcom set than in the recording studio can Blige hire someone to praise her as “the most prolific” of the singers who used to be called the new Jills.)
Mainstream acceptance has hardly dulled Blige’s hiphop edge; Share My World’s hard-hitting sound carries it over weak patches, such as the current single, a Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis collaboration called “Love Is All We Need,” which is otherwise enlivened only by the voices of Blige and guest rapper Nas. Babyface’s other contribution, “Everything,” is much less striking than “Not Gon’ Cry”; its heavy lean on the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything” and A Taste of Honey’s ’80s adaptation of “Sukiyaki” suggests that the Facemeister put this one together on the fly. Blige floats through it satisfactorily, but the bite of much of the rest of the album is absent here.
The combination of Blige with stronger material, of course, lifts the record off the ground. “Seven Days” builds on a premise nearly as surprising as that of “Not Gon’ Cry”: Mary J. is jeopardizing her best-friendship with a guy by falling in love with him. The excitement and potential loss charge her performance with longing, desperation, and a sense of being trapped that Blige refuses to give in to. “Round and Round” twists soul/gospel conventions by sounding like a plea to God before shifting tone to that of a tortured love song. And right before Blige sings “Searching,” “Get to Know You Better” draws ominousness from a slow-grind groove and a warning about the need to “take the time out to find out what love’s all about.” Can couples therapy be far behind? It might be too late for the pair in “Not Gon’ Cry,” but maybe not for these two.CP