For Mary J. Blige, hanging the drama out to dry appears to be threefold.
First, there’s the no-more-games attitude that threads together her No More Drama CD of last fall — though some might consider last week’s release of a new version of the multi-platinum disc (plus two bonus tracks and remixes) as a form of cheating. Regardless, the drama dismissal encompasses some pretty impressive victories — dropping the players, the haters, the drugs, the scars. Sure, the simple acknowledgement of their existence is dramatic in and of itself. But her no-nonsense kicking them to the curb is admirable — and a definite sign of growth for the woman whose career spawned from a mall karaoke recording of Anita Baker’s “Rapture.”
Blige is also acknowledging artistic responsibility — introducing “Where I’ve Been” with, “To all the youth in the world that thinks nobody understands, well I understand that.” And her imperfect (but commendable and “real”) success story is reaching a pretty wide audience, not only on this tour, but as part of an American-tribute pregame Super Bowl performance that featured her along with Paul McCartney, Barry Manilow, Marc Anthony, Patti LaBelle, James Ingram, Wynonna, Yolanda Adams and Mariah Carey.
Although Blige flaps her history (a full load, mind you) freely in the wind — a history that includes poverty, the projects, sin, struggle, an accelerated childhood, a period of general brokenness and a feeling of uselessness — she keeps the unmentionables close by with an air of vagueness:
“At the age of seven years old/ A strange thing happened to me/ Before I even saw/ My life had flashed before me/ And I’ve got the mark to show/ And it became a thang of beauty.”
Her second bullshit bulldozing comes in the form of keeping it real with her girlfriends. In a drama-free world, there’s no room for catty competition. And in a song “for the ladies,” she keeps her sense of humor in full effect. A female choir belting out the letters “PMS” is something that has to be heard to be fully appreciated:
“And I don’t feel like being nice to nobody/ Don’t feel like smiling.”
The title track finds Blige moaning her tidy-up wishes over the theme song of daytime TV’s “The Young and the Restless.” Few people haven’t laughed at the dramatics of soap operas and then whimpered with the sad comparisons they hold to their own sad lives. Or worse yet, have you ever been in a situation where you can separate yourself enough to stand back and recognize a soap-opera skit happening live right before your eyes?
Thirdly, once the rubble clears enough — it never disappears completely — it’s time to celebrate. And there are plenty of party starters on No More Drama. Because sometimes you just have to forget your troubles (at least for the night) and get crunk with your friends:
“Come on baby just party with me/ Let loose and set your body free/ Leave your situations at the door/ So when you step inside jump on the floor.”
Blige’s voice alone is dramatic as all get-out, from the street-tough leather raps to the silky jazz scats to the smooth range of a diva divine. There’s a feel of freestyle verse flavored with R&B no-no-nos and syllable stretching. The Dr. Dre-produced first single, “Family Affair,” has a skittish wash of Dre-style ominous orchestra splashes. There’s even a “listen here mister” neo-soul track with Bligeizm vocal meanderings over clean funk waa-whops.
Blige’s style and tough beauty have always completed the unlikely diva package, from her early tomboyish leather and boots to designer clothes to her current embodiment of a sexy fashionista. There’s something bold and undeniably androgynous about her sexiness, with glamour nails catching the glitter from a playa diamond ring that spells out “Mary” like some overly self-aware MC. She could be wearing a bikini and spike heels and the toughness would still ooze from her rough, tattooed frame.
Where formerly Blige’s head was often cocked to the side, gaze down, face shadowed, high fur collars hiding any and all insecurities, the No More Drama artwork features a more bare Mary. Zipper dangerously low on her furry top, she looks right into the camera, mouth slightly open. She’s got some serious shit she wants off her chest. Hear her out, don’t ask too many questions and then join her on the dance floor. Because things are about to get percolating.
Mary J. Blige
Wednesday, Feb. 13
at the Fox Theatre
2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit