By the time Mary J. Blige released her fourth studio album, Mary, in 1999, she was already a bona fide star thanks to her multiplatinum third album, 1994’s Share My World. The success of that record and all that followed ensured that Mary J. had indeed arrived and wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan artist like so many of the last two decades. Mary greeted the world with a more polished production and more A-list guests than all of its predecessors.
Blige was still only dabbling in the writing process, so she was again reliant on quality material written for her to make up the bulk of this glossy but somewhat uninspiring album. “All That I Can Say” (by Lauren Hill) gets things off to a good start, and Blige’s voice has never sounded as softly sweet as it is here and on the next track, “Sexy.” “Deep Inside” is a bizarre mash-up of Elton John’s (who guests here) “Bennie And The Jets” and a Blige original that really sounds ridiculous. None of it works well at all, and it’s a shame, because Mary’s lyrics are some of her best and most personal to date.
George Michael arranged and produced his duet with Mary on Stevie Wonder’s “As,” which sounds fantastic and it’s here that Blige cuts loose for the first time and shows some true grit, which I love. The song is easily the most memorable single released from the album. One of Blige’s idols, Aretha Franklin, shares the spotlight with her on “Don’t Waste Your Time,” and although the two sound great singing together, I’ve never thought much of the song and playing it now hasn’t changed my mind one bit. Another missed opportunity.
“Not Lookin’,” which features Mary J.’s pal and trusted collaborator K-Ci Hailey, fares much better; these two have delivered the goods together several times by this point, and this cut is no exception. It’s more reminiscent of the great sound from Mary J.’s awesome debut, What’s The 411? “Give Me You” is a run-of-the-mill R&B love song, but with Mary’s voice, a slick arrangement, and guitars by Eric Clapton, its status is elevated to one of the strongest tracks on this release, and a welcome sweet spot it is.
“Let No Man Put Asunder” is very ‘70’s, very ‘70s indeed, and could have been a huge hit in the distant and dark disco era of the latter part of that decade. It still works quite well here, but I’ve never been a big fan of disco and it seems Mary lost the taste for it after this one as well. But my personal favorite track on Mary is “Time,” which Blige co-wrote with Wonder; more importantly, it marks the sound that Mary would pursue on her next project. It’s slick but edgy enough to match Blige’s voice beautifully, and her layered background vocals give it some needed warmth.
Ultimately, though, Mary has always been my least favorite of Blige’s efforts because its potential is drowned out by too may lackluster tracks that are too similar to stand alone as some of them should have. Mainly I’m talking about songs like “I’m In Love,” “Memories,” “No Happy Holidays,” and “Beautiful Ones,” which are all pleasant songs but hardly memorable. Still, a couple of final positives appear with “Your Child” and the crisp R&B groove of “The Love I Never Had.” The latter is very Prince-like – actually, that’s putting it mildly as it’s a direct rip-off of the Purple One’s “I Hate U” (off of The Gold Experience.) In both tempo, structure, and duration, it’s basically the same song, and that’s just the half of it. I’m astounded that there has been no lawsuit as of yet – I mean, litigation is this dude’s favorite hobby, so to me it’s just staggering to think he let this one slip by. Anyway, that’s a story for another day, but to me, it’s more interesting than 70% of this album – and that’s saying something.
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