It wasn’t easy for Mary J Blige to ascend to the position of “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” but she does make it sound easy to remain there. Her ninth studio album is filled with yet another set of solid tracks that are sure to make her fans and fans of meaningful music alike happy.
Even the title of the album reflects Mary J Blige’s use of music not as something to sell, but rather as a way to share a message. And however cliché it might sound, the title to this album leaves little to the imagination; telling us that the hardship Mary J Blige has been through since she was a child not only didn’t break her, but it made her Stronger With Each Tear.
The thing I find most fascinating about Mary J Blige is the evolution she has gone through in her personal life as reflected through her music. Since 1992, she has released nine studio albums and the contents of each reflected a certain overarching theme. A new album becomes the sequel to a franchise. So, to be able to better appreciate Stronger With Each Tear, the listener needs to have at least a slight idea of what Mary has been through. Her music consistently reflects where she is and where she wants to go, making her perhaps one of the most authentic artists.
While she seemed distraught on some of her previous albums (in 1993, when she released My Life, she was in a state of clinical depression, battling alcohol and drugs while in an abusive relationship; 2001’s No More Drama was not only a reflection of Mary J Blige’s ongoing struggle to clean up her life, but also a stand against the negative traits in her own behavior and some less-than-healthy choices; and 2007’s Growing Pains reflected that while the struggle was being won, it was long from over), this one reflects the sound of a happier, well-adjusted woman whose previous years of turmoil have created a unique perspective on life which she is content to revel in. The unique form of therapy she has been doing through her music seems to be succeeding, and Mary J Blige seems to have become the heroine in an ongoing saga which we have been following for awhile and don’t want to see end anytime soon. Certainly not before she released an album signaling the end of her journey through life.
Stronger With Each Tear is a collection of solid tracks. A peculiar phenomenon emerged during the days that I listened to this album. On the one hand I didn’t always really hear the album, but in a good way — the songs are seamless and they are an easy, agreeable listen. However, it doesn’t mean that all the songs are so similar as to blend together. They are each quite different from one another. When you do pay attention to them, you appreciate the richness of the album, even if none of the songs are very avant-garde or different from previous Mary J Blige creations.
Which is the curious phenomenon I mentioned previously: how can a collection of songs, so different from one another, blend so seamlessly together? I haven’t quite figured it out, and I have the impression it’s going to take me awhile to.
Her voice sounds like thick, sweet syrup in some of the songs, like the first one, and the songs are almost comfortingly familiar actually, reassuring us that although she’s changing, she will always be true to herself.
The themes in this album are numerous and interrelated.
Love takes the stage front row, centre. But it’s not just the happy, everything-is-awesome, rainbows and unicorns though; while it seems that Mary J Blige is very happy in love at the moment (in “Tonight”, the album’s first track, she sings: “You show me something in love/That no one can contest/If I had to lay out my life for you I’m prepared/Can let this moment pass/Gotta make it our last”), she’s also dealing with mature concerns that every relationship goes through: “Me and you been up talking seems like all night/And ain’t nothing wrong with us talking to make things alright/but it’s a new day baby I know I made a mistake/I know that you going to love anyway” (“Said and Done”, the album’s third track). This might not seem as much, but when you put it in the context of Mary J Blige’s history of abusive relationships, it’s a fabulous step forward, and an inspirational one at that for women who are themselves stuck in such relationships.
An increasing self-awareness and self-confidence is also imbibed throughout the album: “Them other girl’s you done been with/None of them got nothing on me/Hating on my style they ain’t got nothing on me” (The One”, featuring Drake, the album’s second track).
While “I feel good”, the album’s fifth track, seems to best reflect where she is right now, it’s also the track that makes us see that while she’s going ahead, she never forgets where she was and the drama that kept her there, and that she is true to herself when she said in 2001 that she wanted No More Drama: “Stepping out tonight with my people/Everybody’s fly/Watch me now my presence gets attention, whenever I walk by /I don’t know what it is/But it’s got me smiling…and I like it/I don’t know what it is/But I’m alright/And the best way to describe it/ Back off of me/The negativity/Don’t want to hear what you say/I’m a dance away my drama/So you best get out my way”.
The two strongest songs in my opinion are the two most inspiring ones. In “Each Tear”, the album’s seventh track, Mary tells us that: “In each tear/there’s a lesson/Make you wiser than before/Makes you stronger than you know/In each tear/Bring you closer to your dreams/No mistake, no heartbreak/Can take away what your meant to be”. And in the album’s twelfth and closing track, “I can see in color” (which from the soundtrack to the movie Precious), she sings: “It took a long time to get to this place/And now that im here, no one can ever erase/The joy that I feel, way down deep inside/The love that I have for me will never, never die/I can see in color” The lyrics from this last song are all the more powerful that the other elements are muted; all you can hear is a simple beat and Mary’s voice throughout, thus putting emphasis on the lyrics and also on Mary J Blige’s amazing and unique voice.
The CD itself seems stripped down to the bare essentials; featuring a list of all the songs and its collaborators, a few pictures of Mary J Blige and a note from her, it seems to be pointing directly to the CD and asking: “What are you waiting for?”
Final verdict: Stronger With Each Tear is a great album to add to your collection, whether you are a long time Mary J Blige fan or are just discovering her. For those of you who are of the latter group, I would strongly suggest listening to a couple of her previous songs before or after having listened to Stronger With Each Tear; it will add yet another layer of richness to an already rich album.
First Published here on Blogcritics.