In my experience, there’s some fantastic music that always seems to be too much the property of others to really get into. You hear it on the radio, in shopping centres, on nights out, and in passing cars, bouncing comically to the beat, and the tendency, maybe sadly, is to say “that’s great, but you can have it.”
For me, Mary J Blige is up there with the most prolific makers of such records, exchanging regular high fives with Puff Daddy, George Michael and U2 yet towering above them all on artistic merit. Blige was brought up on the streets of Yonkers, New York, and raced from the blocks in the early ’90s to bridge the gaps between R&B, hip hop and soul music. An upstart Puffy was at the helm, but the street-smart Blige was more than bling-by-numbers.
The likes of J Saul Kane and The Neptunes had earlier set a precedent for hip hop’s leading lights to go forth and collaborate, and four years later Blige had split with her Daddy to pursue new ground. Her output since has being an unpredictable mixture of more conventional soul and thundering tunes, warmly embraced by the critical and commercial world.
Blige is undoubtedly one of the fascinating figures of modern pop culture, so even though there’s more than a suspicion of Christmas cash-in here, and omissions are made, Reflections – A Retrospective amply represents every extreme of her ouvre. It’s a mixed bag that more than anything else highlights the differences between commercial and artistic creation, and as hip hop continues to veer towards the former, provides a pretty relevant story.
Not many artists have got close to the slithering, jazzy soul sounds of Blige’s sophomore ’95 album, My Life, and its two representatives here sound head and shoulders above the rest, its title track and Blige’s version of Norman Whitfield’s I’m Going Down both fine examples of the smooth-grooving, slinky rhythms and revolutionary lyrics that made for such an irresistible early sound.
Of course, back then Puffy was lucky to get into a party himself let alone set one up for the whole of Vegas, and as he gained his own type of success Blige turned towards producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for inspiration. Her ’97 set Share My World heralded a new era, but the more commercial sound pioneered on the likes of Babyface’s Not Gon’ Cry was no match for the outlandish class of previous records, and sitting next to them here it casts a pretty pale shadow.
2001’s No More Drama set saw Blige hitting form again with the Dr Dre-produced Family Affairs, a dyed-in-the-wool disco/club/dancehall nugget bursting at the seams with a sassy, sexy, domineering femininity that you wish Blige and her collaborators could have tapped into more often, and the LP also saw Blige benefit from the magnificence of The Neptunes, who’s irresistible Love Is All We Need is easily up there with her top ten cuts. Alas, it’s excluded here in favour of the type of celebrity collaboration feast that could never hope to match the fruits of previous creative relationships.
Method Man is wheeled out for I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need, and alongside the ever-classy Blige, his amateur gangsta menace is little more than foolish. Next up is the ’99 hit with George Michael, and of course you want to hate it on behalf of self-appointed geniuses everywhere, but apart from Michael’s smarmy opening melodies, it doesn’t really allow for unfettered disgust, instead breezing by with a benign sense of soul that invites indifference rather than extreme activism.
Bilge cuts a lonely figure through these meaningless sojourns, and One (featuring U2) is utterly lamentable. Blige tries her best to play the healing game to pasty guitar strains while Bono lurks in the foreground, resounding to the usual imaginary applause, but it has all the musical edge of Pudsy Bear, or maybe The Edge, and it’s actually a relief to get to the comical, wag-dog vocals of 50 Cent as he takes his place next to Blige to pose and wiggle his hands.
This is undoubtedly the dark side of the moon, and a new track, We Ride (I See the Future), suggests that the Blige of today is rather sadly favouring the self-obsessed, complacent ballad over the sensual, quintessential soul/hip hop fusion that so defined her pioneering years. We can only hope that this is another passing phase in a career of devilish matriculations, which Reflections – A Retrospective sums up with a wilfully commercial air.