Here’s an interesting compare- and-contrast: Mariah Carey vs. Mary J. Blige. Where Carey’s music has rarely strayed from the pleasantries of butterflies and rainbows, Blige’s music has been a soul-baring document of struggle since she debuted with songs such as “Real Love” in 1992. This summer, the cracks have finally shown in Carey’s sunny facade; meanwhile, after years of pain on wax, Blige is sounding healthier than ever on her new album, No More Drama.
Drama is less volatile and less emotionally jagged than Blige’s earlier work; it continues her journey away from the problems of the heart, which began on 1999’s Mary. What hasn’t changed is her lack of artifice: This is a sick-and-tired of being sick-and-tired kind of album, full of proclamations, commandments and warnings to herself and anyone who would dare tread on her feelings.
Blige was one of the first singers to unearth the gospel and jazz lying dormant in hip-hop (in this regard, up-and-comers like Alicia Keys owe her a debt); with Drama, she takes that one step further, veering away from the percussive sound that was once her trademark. On cuts such as “Keep It Movin’ ” she further explores the soul and jazz riffs in her vocal repertoire, and is barely recognizable as a hip-hop siren. At first, she sounds almost tepid in comparison to her older work, but this is music that grows in depth and feeling with each listen.
No More Drama has three great songs: The Dr. Dre production “Family Affair,” which paces the album, moves at a steady simmer, very controlled, matter-of-fact but undeniably funky. “Steal Away,” a tightly constructed ghetto fantasy, mixes an old-soul sensibility with the Neptunes’ postmillennial sound. The album crescendos on the title track: Rising from a soap-opera piano riff, Blige climbs to gospel heights in her determination never to repeat mistakes of the past: “No more pain/No more games/Maybe I like the stress/’Cause I was young and restless/But that was long ago.” Redemption, however, seems somehow incomplete. Throughout, there is a sense that Blige is still in transition, that happiness is closer but still out of her grasp. The wonderful imperfections remain: The church-woman passion, the moans and warbles that once announced her pain, are now moving her toward contentment. Drama presents Blige more in touch with her roots, more grounded and ready for her next set of challenges, musical and otherwise, an analog soul thriving in a digital age.