Let the venting begin. After the winners of the 56th Annual Grammy Awards were announced, R&B fans raced to Twitter to share their opinions with their followers. Overall, it seems like R&B fans were not pleased with the winners. Many felt that certain artists were snubbed (i.e. Tamar Braxton), while others questioned why some artists were on the ticket to begin with (i.e. Rihanna).
Surprisingly, Tamar Braxton and Fantasia — the artists who led with the most nominations in the R&B categories — did not win any awards tonight.
Bryan-Michael Cox, Johnta Austin, Jazze Pha and Ne-Yo exclusively share some of their memories working on the timeless album with Rated R&B.
On Dec. 18, 2007, Mary J. Blige released her eighth studio album, Growing Pains, the follow-up to her chart-topping 2005 LP, The Breakthrough.
Surpassing the commercial success of The Breakthrough — which debuted at No. 1 with 727,000 copies sold in the first week — could have added pressure to Blige while creating its forerunner, but it didn’t.
Before releasing Growing Pains, Blige told Target in a press interview, “The Breakthrough wasn’t done to be critically acclaimed. It was done for the love of my fans and what I dealing with. Yes, we love all the glory and the success but the follow-up will be smooth because now we know exactly what to do and where we’re going. I’m serious about my fans so I’m not even worried about making the hottest record in the world. I’m worried about making something that will connect with my fans.”
Although Blige was determined to share songs that would resonate with her fans, it could be well argued that her then label, Geffen Records, was focused on nabbing another profitable single like “Be Without You.” The love anthem topped the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for 15 weeks and spent 75 weeks on the chart, making it the most successful single in the history of the chart. The question everyone wondered, “Could Blige beat its success?”
Bryan-Michael Cox, songwriter-producer of the monstrous single, exclusively tells Rated R&B, “I think it’s always a little bit of pressure, especially from the label, to duplicate that success. You always want to outdo the last one. We don’t live in a space of where we are basking in the glory of one record. We want to make the next one better than the last one.” Blige did just that … far beyond chart achievements though.
After adjusting to the overwhelming but deserved attention of The Breakthrough, a rejuvenated Blige reappeared on popular FM radio stations with “Just Fine” in the fall of 2007. Supported by cheerfully synth playback and rosy lyrics, the new record steered vastly away from the colors of her past works.
As early studio sessions began with Blige, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Jazze Pha, the latter contributor vividly remembers the day he found out it would be the lead single. “When I was playing the drums for the beginning, she was like, ‘This is my single. This is what I need. I’m feeling happy,’” says Pha.
“Fine” wasn’t the pilot to Blige’s blissful music shift. Her 2003 release Love & Life heard a spiritually augmented Blige professing a new perspective. Despite that optimistic transformation, however, it wasn’t as chirpy as “Just Fine” and the music that followed.
While Blige’s choice to shy away from her music norm rattled some of her core fans, “Just Fine” contributor Jazze Pha recalls why she opted to make this artistic change. “She talked about how people always want her to be depressed Mary. She wanted to let people know that she wasn’t somewhere around here crying. At that time she was happy. She was alright, living life.”
Regarding how fans would respond to Blige’s sunny new recording, Pha tells us, “I already knew fans were going to love [“Just Fine”]. It was upbeat but it was still Mary. It didn’t feel like something she was trying that was out on the limb somewhere for her or her fans. It felt right in the middle for her fans. It was different … but it still felt good for them.” This statement proved to be correct.
The hopeful single reached No. 3 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 22 on Hot 100. The gold-selling track also received two Grammy nominations, including Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 2008 and Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical.
Although Blige didn’t win a Grammy for “Just Fine,” that didn’t stop her from giving it her all in every televised performance, especially during the 2007 American Music Awards that November. Rihanna, for one, couldn’t help herself from dancing and singing along.
With the official release date for Growing Pains concrete and “Just Fine” taking off, Blige’s then label released “Work That,” another empowering track. Co-penned by Sean Garrett, the Theron “Neff-U” Feemster-produced cut championed self-confidence and encouraged listeners, mainly women, to be themselves.
In mid-November 2007, Blige found herself and “Work That” attached to an iTunes advertisement for the latest iPod. Shortly afterward, Blige shot a music video for the sisterhood anthem, but it never saw the light of day.
Despite the “Work That” music video being shelved, the empowering homiletic attained Blige another top 20 single on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The album rollout continued as well with Blige working the television circuit with major appearances.
One memorable TV moment showed Blige playing CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute on Dec. 6, 2007. Poised and vocally prepared, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul introduced “Come to Me (Peace),” the closing track of Growing Pains. All about forgiveness and mending what’s been broken, the lyrics nabbed at the heartstrings of all six honorees and viewers at home.
After a few more daytime and late night guest appearances and performances of “Just Fine,” Growing Pains became physically and digitally accessible for fans. Occupied by crisper vocals, more modern but fitting instrumentation, and a refined view on love and life, Growing Pains cemented itself as her most polished album since 1999’s Mary. Simply put, it’s AN ALBUM.
We had the privilege of speak to a few songwriters, producers and contributors about four tracks from Blige’s Grammy-winning album. We also chatted with her makeup artist about the simplistically elegant album cover shoot.
Talk to Me Written by Mary J. Blige, Eric Hudson, Johnta Austin, Verdine White and Robert Wright. Produced by Eric Hudson.
Out of the 16 tracks on Growing Pains, “Talk to Me” is the only record that includes a sample. Orchestrated by Eric Hudson, he used production elements of “Key to My Heart” by The Emotions for heart-piercing tune, co-penned by Blige and Johnta Austin.
Over this bluesy sample, Blige’s voice and soul shined, especially at the 2:19 mark, as she pleaded for her stubborn mate to communicate his true feelings. “Let’s break down all the barriers standing in our way. Get over yourself for me. I’ll get over myself for you. Let’s get over ourselves for us. Let’s start today, yeah.”
Co-composer Austin, he says his conversation with Blige for “Talk to Me” was similar to those they’d had during previous collaborations. “We would discuss where she was in life and how she wanted to convey a real emotion and description in the writing and everything built from that.”
If You Love Me?
Written by Bryan-Michael Cox, Johnta Austin & Mary J. Blige. Produced by Bryan-Michael Cox.
From “Till the Morning” to “Feel Like a Woman,” Growing Pains presented fans with a healthy balance of fast speed and moderate pace songs. Cox and Austin brought Blige to back to home court with “If You Love Me?”
Backed by hand claps, whispers of “yes” and a beautiful piano, Blige requested her helpmate to prove his love for her in his actions instead of his words. The hip-hop soul pioneer rides beat the second verse in classic MJB form, “Now for the past three weeks you’ve been dipping, slipping, running round. Through the city. Through the town. Wait, what you doing?”
Surprisingly, the song wasn’t originally written for Blige. “That was actually a record that we did for Monica,” Cox tells Rated R&B. “I played it for Mary at one of our sessions just by accident. We had held the record so long that I forgot that Clive [Davis] had it on hold. When I played it for Mary, she was like, ‘I want that song.’ She cut the song, then I remembered I was like, ‘Oh snap, we did this song for Monica.’ It was kind of like Mary wanted it right then, so we gave it to her and she killed it. She flipped a few things, changed some lyrics here and there, but she killed it.”
Now that Blige had “If You Love Me?” in her zipped album folder, Cox had to break the news to the After the Storm singer. “When it went down, that was my problem to fix,” he says. “Of course, Monica is my sister and she knew that Clive was holding that record for no reason. So, through conversations … of course, I had to go and make it right, and we made Still Standing.”
Shake Down (feat. Usher)
Lyrics and Melody by Mary J. Blige, The-Dream & Usher Raymond. Produced by Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Jazze Pha.
In addition to “Just Fine,” Jazze Pha contributed to two other tracks, including “Shake Down,” featuring Usher. Using metaphors powered by passion and favorable love rulings, the vocals of the two music titans blend easily over the colorfully eccentric production.
Ahead of the mastered version of “Shake Down,” the Atlanta native flashes back to Blige being front and center during the makings of the record. Something she had never witnessed, according to Pha. “With all those records that she’s made, she had never sat there while [producers] made the music from start to finish. She said, ‘Even when she worked with Puff, all the song were already ready when she got to the studio.’”
While Pha had a beat in mind prior to their session, he says, “I stripped it down and revamped it with the new music. I started the drums, and of course Tricky [Stewart] came in with the keys on the record. Then The-Dream started writing to it before it was complete. Tricky built the music around what The-Dream had done vocally.”
Looking back on whose vision it was to get MJB and Ush on the same track, Pha believes, “It was The-Dream’s idea. We were already working with Usher at the same time as Mary for his Here I Stand album. It made sense.”
Written by Mary J, Blige, Bryan-Michael Cox, & Johnta Austin. Produced by Bryan-Michael Cox.
Succeeding the release of Blige’s official singles “Just Fine” and “Work That,” it appeared Geffen Records marketing compass needed batteries. Dre & Vidal’s “Hurt Again,” a 70’s-themed melancholy ballad served as the intended third and final single. Gaining enough radio airplay to peak at No. 55 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, the single was quickly replaced by Cox and Austin’s soul-stirring ballad “Stay Down.”
Earlier listeners couldn’t help but express their opinions on how “Stay Down” mirrored the writing blueprint of Blige’s award-winning single “Be Without You.” Although this fan theory still causes some unpopular criticism, Austin offers a simple rebuttal once and for all. “Maybe in some of the cadences and flow of the melody, but we definitely weren’t thinking about ‘Be Without You’ when writing [“Stay Down”],” he tells Rated R&B. He continues, “Moments like ‘Be Without You’ are sometimes lighting in a bottle and you can’t create in a way that forces trying to catch it that way again.”
Cox adds, “What’s crazy is people were a little critical then but now people go back to that song and talk about how much they love that song. It’s kind of interesting to see how a song ages.”
Contrary to “Just Fine” and “Work That,” the Cox-produced track didn’t see top 20 or much success on radio formats. But Cox renders his explantation for its underperformance on the charts. “I think the label just didn’t prepare properly for [Growing Pains] in general,” he says boldy. “I think they just thought it was going to ride on the fumes of The Breakthrough. I don’t think they really thought they had to really work these songs. [The label was] going through a transition at the time. Ron Fair was exiting. There were some things happening inside of the building that I think affected the actual performance of the album and the single per se.”
Despite the absence of promotion for “Stay Down,” Growing Pains went on to win Best Contemporary R&B Album at the 51st Grammy Awards.
Album Cover Photoshoot
Making an album cover that stands apart from other artists’ discographies in a record store can be a deciding factor to a buyer purchasing an artist’s full oeuvre. Blige caught the attention of buyers with her regal Growing Pains cover.
Sporting a sharp-cut bob, an oversized tunic dress and colossal gold earrings, the simple yet elegant artwork catches Blige holding her head on a pedestal of confidence.
Celebrity makeup master D’Andre Michael reflects on his first cover shoot with Blige. While Michael knew photographers Markus Klinko and Indrani would nail the artistic direction, he strived for his own excellence. “All I kept thinking is I wanted to make sure it was perfect,” he tells Rated R&B. “I know I wanted her to have dewy skin which was focal point.”
Pleased with cover art and other shots captured for the Growing Pains booklet, Michael does remember stepping out of his comfort zone to please the photographer who didn’t like makeup artists to use foundation. While Michael won’t reveal his hidden makeup technique for this shoot, he did what any great face painter does — improvise.
Another striking moment for Michael from the Growing Pains photo shoot is what brought them there — music. “My most memorable moment was enjoying Mary’s music choices like the Jones Girls, Michael Jackson and René & Angela. Still we build our “dressing room playlists” together as we get ready for a show. We listen, dance, cry, laugh, sing along and enjoy.”
Although Growing Pains did not spawn a single as huge as its predecessor’s lead-off, “Be Without You,” Pains proved to be more famed than its build-up though. Sure, the album increasingly revealed that Blige still dealt with some uncomfortable luxuries (i.e. self-esteem, insecurities) of being a woman. What can be appreciated though is she that she wasn’t looking just through her lens when she wrote this record.
Unlike previous releases where Blige implemented her own personal walk of life, this collection of melodies ushered in a spirit of selflessness that finally gave her feelings some rightfully due privacy.
Famed music influencer Ne-Yo, who co-penned and co-produced four tracks on the album, concurs that Growing Pains at last aided Blige in living outside of her songs, namely on “What Love Is.”
“Every song, though not always in first person the way you’re accustomed to hearing Mary testify, was a journey into the place of self acceptance and fearlessness,” he tells Rated R&B. “That place that allows you be OK with the fact that you’re not totally ‘OK’ just yet. To the point where you can focus on love and it’s overall meaning, not just what it is in the realm of you … but the world.”
Reflecting back on his candid studio sessions with Blige during this era, the Non-Fiction artist calls them “therapeutic” for not only Blige but for him too. “There aren’t many sessions I’ve done that have been personally fulfilling and emotionally triumphant as the sessions for the Growing Pains album. I love MJB forever for allowing me to be apart of this growth.”
We’re happy to have been apart of this growth too, Mary.
Rihanna has been, is, and will always be a hit maker; There’s a reason why she has fourteen No. 1 singles spanning all the way back to her second album (and just for the record, her debut single “Pon de Replay” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.) Coming off her Talk That Talk album in 2011, which featured international hits “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been,” it was time for Rihanna to take it up another notch when it came to her next album. Working with fresh blood in producers Mike-Will-Made-IT and Labyrinth while enlisting pop mainstays David Guetta and Stargate, the result was Unapologetic: an eclectic mix of EDM, trap, dance, R&B, and pop songs that scaled the musical and lyrical landscape. If this album was an avatar, it’d be “The Last Genre-Bender.”
Unapologetic marked two things: Rihanna’s first artistically complete album and first No. 1 album. While Rated R and Talk That Talk had some “woah” moments, this album found Rihanna elevating her musical core to new heights. She’s still Bad Gal RiRi, but with more wisdom, more vocal strength, and with a newfound sense of artistic confidence. It’s no wonder why it won a Grammy award for “Best Urban Contemporary Album.”
Here at Rated R&B, we’ve compiled what we consider as the best tracks from Rihanna’s seventh studio album. Check out the list below:
“Loveeeeeee Song” (feat. Future)
Future always shines when paired with female artists, but his “Loveeeeeee Song” collaboration with Rihanna might be his best duet to date. The Luney Tunez-produced cut finds the two artists flirting with idea commitment, but being temporarily satisfied with the current arrangement of keeping things purely physical. “I don’t wanna give you the wrong impression / I need love and affection / And I hope I’m not sounding too desperate / I need love and affection,” they sing. On this album full of hard-hitting choruses and club-ready bass drops, this smooth late-night thumper stands out in the best way. Rihanna’s verses and Future’s bridge eventually explodes into a lush, beautifully crafted final chorus between the two of them. If you think “Kiss it Better” is Rihanna’s best bedroom banger, then “Loveeeeeee Song” definitely gives it a run for its money.
“Get It Over With”
While the album spotlights an array of emotional lows and insecurities, there’s a silver lining thanks to this instrument-laden track. Written by Ms. Fenty, Brian Kennedy, and the ever-talented James Fauntleroy, “Get It Over With” is the ballad of broken dreams, but also a song of hope. “It’s dark in the day / I’ll say now don’t complain / Look up the sun is just a cloud away / You’re so afraid to cry / But your heart be feeling dry / It’s time to change,” Rihanna sings in the first verse. Fauntleroy is a master of stacking vocals, so it’s no surprise that we find Rihanna’s background vocals more than on point here. Paired with snaps and solemn violins, this song is the perfect mixture of resilience, strength, and sadness, which is why it makes this list.
Rihanna has mastered the art of emoting over the years, and “What Now” is just one flash of brilliance in her extensive discography. Co-written by fellow Bajan Livvi Franc and British producers Nathan Cassells and Parker Ighile, the song explores the dissatisfaction one feels when they’ve settled, whether that be in love, career, or life in general. “Whatever it is/It feels like it’s laughing at me through the glass of a two-sided mirror/Whatever it is/It’s just laughing at me/And I just wanna scream,” she sings. The lyrics cut just as deep as its smashing chorus, but what really elevates this song is its climax where Rihanna repeats the cadence “I don’t know where to go/I don’t know what to feel/I don’t know how to cry/I don’t know, oh-oh, why!” The winding guitar, raw emotion, and pounding bass culminates into one of the best musical moments on the album.
“Nobody’s Business” (feat. Chris Brown)
Although this collaboration didn’t make as much of a splash as their “Birthday Cake” remix, Chris Brown and Rihanna still shocked fans by linking up on this groovy duet. Co-written by Rihanna and long-time collaborator The-Dream, the song finds the ex-lovers proclaiming their love for each other, and telling off nay-sayers in the process. “You’ll always be mine / Sing it to the world / You’ll always be my boy / I’ll always be your girl / Ain’t nobody’s business / Ain’t nobody’s business / Ain’t nobody’s business / But mine and my baby,” they sing. It’s no surprise that this track contains an interpolation from “The Way You Make Me Feel,” because this euro-dance joint feels like a new-age Michael Jackson record. Breezy and Rih trade parts effortlessly; their natural chemistry is apparent. Even five years later, this song feels fresh, yet timeless, which is why it lands on this list.
“Stay” (feat. Mikky Ekko)
There’s always something special about an artist’s voice over a grand piano, which is more than clear on this tender ballad. Written largely in part by featured artist Mikky Ekko, “Stay” is almost like the continuation of “Loveeeeeee Song,” except with more feelings and time invested. “Not really sure how to feel about it / Something in the way you move / Makes me feel like I can’t live without you / And it takes me all the way / I want you to stay,” Rihanna sings. Even though the song is obviously brilliant, the reason it makes this list is because of Rihanna’s vocal showing. While her voice holds the same type of raw emotion as “What Now,” Rih wields it quite differently, drawing the audience in and pulling away with each sharp breath, vocal crack and sustained note. This all lends itself to the push-and-pull of the actual relationship that the song speaks of, which really speaks to her growth artistically and dedication to the edgier, tougher vision for Unapologetic. Major props go to Kuk Harrell, who is the vocal engineer and producer on this song as well as the entire album.
Stream Unapologetic on Spotify below.
What’s your favorite song on Unapologetic? Let us know in the comment section below!
The “Vocal Bible” nickname has been bestowed upon Brandy for her vocal acrobatics and inexplicable natural ability to sing. However, Brandy Norwood is much more than her voice. In fact, her most redeeming quality is her nuanced storytelling as an artist. Every album that has been graced with those hypnotic eyes of hers has been complete from top to bottom, both vocally and thematically.
While some may argue that Never Say Never and Full Moon are artistic perfection, Two Eleven is too, but with a twist. The beauty of Two Eleven is the multi-edge edge sword of sound that it wields. The album is noticeably handled by hip-hop producers, but thanks to its host of R&B writers, the songs on the album are able to catch the spirit of the R&B genre today — a whole five years ahead of schedule.
If you take a listen to “Hardly Breathing,” do you not hear shades of Dawn Richard? Or maybe if you paid close enough attention to the vocal layering on “Wish Your Love Away,” you would hear the same on Tamar’s latest album. You can even compare “Put It Down” to K. Michelle’s “Either Way.” Aside from boasting the same feature, the candor and aggression in the lyrical content is almost uncanny. This album is for the Sabrina Claudio’s just as much as it is for the Sevyn Streeter’s and even the reaches the artistic bubble of a more established artist like Tamia. In short, Two Eleven, as a whole, is THAT album.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best deep cuts from the five-year-old body of work. Check it out:
“Paint This House”
Brandy’s smoky vocals take center stage, backed by her airy background vocals and hauntingly pulsing production from Rico Love, Eric Goudy III and Pierre Moody. On the song, Brandy is in the mood for love-making and some “room redecorating” with her new lover. “And I want these stairs, those walls/Kitchen counters, and those chairs/To remind you of how good it feels/And all of these floors and ceilings/And every hallway, yeah/Not and inch will go untouched/Let’s paint this house with our love,” she sings. With lyrics so obviously sexual, Ms. Norwood brings her signature tender tone to song, creating a sensual jam for any bedroom-thumping situation.
Following a similar narrative as “Paint This House,” Brandy decides to take control this time when it comes to the moment of love-making and passion. “My baby got a lot to learn/Come here let mama bring you up to speed/A couple of changes/A couple of things I want to go over/Couple of hours is all I need/So let’s get it started,” she sings. The genius house production from Dave Taylor both compliments and juxtaposes Brandy’s vocals and lyrics extremely well.
Brandy’s voice takes full flight on this apologetic anthem. “Boy somewhere along the line I lost my way/And I made you pay for the mistakes he made/And I’m sorry baby, cause it shouldn’t be that way/Oh Boy, I really need you, I need you in my life/Cause oh boy I’m nothing, oh no I’m nothing without you,” she sings. Seeing the grave error in bringing baggage from the past into a current relationship, Brandy showcases her vocal power and grit to win her man back. And although we’d love just a piano behind her, the kick-snare and cymbal give this almost-but-not-quite-a-single the touch of bounce that it needs.
“Wish Your Love Away”
Brandy is trying to get over the one that should have been the one on this somber ballad. “I wish that there was no more sleepless nights for me/You can look inside my heart and see/How I’m feelin, baby/Or maybe you just don’t give a damn/Could I be foolish to give a damn, baby?/’Cause I’m to the point where I wish/Boy, I wish that I didn’t love you,” she sings. The track is just so sonically vivid-imagine rain softly falling on your windowpane as this song plays in the background-that it didn’t even need her vocals to be impactful. But, that’s not to say that her vocals aren’t appreciated, especially at the end of the song where the music fades out to just her immaculate vocal layering. Brandy’s resonance both in voice and artistry is perfectly encapsulated by this tune, and hints at how this album will undoubtedly stand the test of time.
What’s your favorite song from “Two Eleven?” Let us know in the comment section below.