Multi-award winning ‘high-priestess of soul’, Mary J Blige is now eight albums into her career. Following the success of 2005’s critically acclaimed and enormously successful The Breakthrough was never going to be easy. On Growing Pains, Blige recruits Tricky Stewart and Jazze Pha, both responsible for RnB mega-hits in recent years, to help build on past success.
Work That is a fine opening track. “Making the most of what she’s got”, Mary sounds assured and confident stridently empowered song. Lead single Just Fine borrows from late-’90s Whitney. But the refrain “I won’t change my life, my life’s just fine”, while nice for Mary, does not add up to a great song. Whereas previously much has been made of Mary’s troubled life, there is little struggle to be found on Growing Pains – indeed little actual pain at all.
Mary’s overriding preoccupation is the smug satisfaction of how nice her life is. On Feel Like a Woman, a rare moment when she surrenders her empowerment for the tenderness of love, the production swamps her main asset, the expressiveness of her voice. She may lack the range and power of other voices – although her muscular larynx has moments of surprising tenderness, heavy-handed production drown this out. The slick results lack the passion that lifts Blige’s live performances.
With age should come reflections on the world not available to younger artists: a perspective that informs the songs an artist chooses to sing and the way one delivers them. Sadly, Mary’s maturity, which she seems to be revelling in, has left her focusing on the fact that she still looks good in a pair of stretch jeans. Such proclamations remind one of the phrase about a lady protesting too much. If you don’t care about your maturity and your age just don’t sing about it. And 19 tracks of I’m Every (Mature) Woman is too much.
Most of Growing Pains sounds like it could have come from any time in the past twenty years of soul and RnB; and while Chaka Khan‘s mid-’80s disco was vibrant then, now the sound is anachronistic.
The problems with Growing Pains – over production, dated arrangements, and uninspiring sentiments – are compounded by it being easily six songs too long, if you make it to the highlights such as Talk to Me or What Love Is you deserve some sort of endurance medal.
If Blige is going to cherish her maturity and experience, she needs songs to back that up and the confidence and team around her to let that rich, expressive, tender molasses voice shine on record. Then she will deliver something truly special.