To create an album worthy of “critical acclaim” an artist of any music genre must dig deep and find a way to stand a part from the expected and create a body of work that impresses music critics. Nearly seven years after the release of her hip-hop catered debut album “What’s The 411?,” Mary J. Blige seized the interest of music analysts with her fourth soul set “Mary.”
The 14-track collection found Blige’s surprising change in her musical approach risky but refreshing and more mature yet modern too. This daring move to release an unexpected range of soul music became a defining moment in her career and helped produce her best work to date.
After the release of her fourth album, the next few full-length recordings had their moments. Her follow-up album “No More Drama” had the blessing of its title track. The sixth studio set and uninventive “Love & Life” added nothing special to her discography or her accolade showcase. Two years later the arrival of “The Breakthrough” earned her commercial success but while those accomplishments marked her place in the industry for some standards, the project isn’t one that can hold a candle to her “Mary” album.
Blige’s music didn’t regain a high standard until the release of 2007’s “Growing Pains” which heightened her career with songs like “Come to Me (Peace),” “Talk to Me,” “Smoke,” and “Hurt Again,” among others.
Riding full speed pass 2009’s “Stronger With Each Tear” and 2011’s “My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1),” her festive 2013 release “A Mary Christmas” was added to her lengthy discography as her eleventh studio album. Although it was a holiday album, it was a refreshing project that didn’t seem like it was rushed to meet a deadline.
With production assistance by David Foster, holiday favorites such as “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The First Noel” and “When You Wish Upon A Star” featuring Barbra Streisand showcased Blige entering the same natural theme of her “Mary” album. Each song featured on the album made Blige’s audience believe what she was singing about versus her just belting out music to appear on an album that isn’t authentic from top to bottom.
Now while her last two projects “Stronger with Each Tear” and “My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1)” had tracks that were enjoyable, most were forgettable and under promoted.
The latter two albums featured production and appearances from the same group of people that everyone else relied on to garner a hit single. The albums also included the same producers and songwriters that contributed to her generic sound that resembles “Be Without You” — one of her biggest hits. In addition, the albums included songs that were initially recorded for movie soundtracks including “Color” (“Precious“) and “The Living Proof” (“The Help“).
All in all, Blige’s last two albums sound like unmotivated musical collections that should be axed from her catalog. The two albums also became her first two projects aside from “What’s The 411?” to not receive Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album, a record she mostly holds in that category.
Besides from not being recognized for awards and not being albums that can be listened to from beginning to end, her album sales have dropped dramatically along with chart positions.
From selling 730,000 (“The Breakthrough“) and 629,000 (“Growing Pains“) to 332,000 (“Stronger…”) and 156,000 (“My Life II…”) album copies in its first week, her opening numbers have shifted the certification status of her albums predecessors. While the albums were certified gold, both marked her first two original projects to not at least be certified platinum in the United Status. Her “My Life II” album was her first studio album since her debut album to not reach number-one on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart (No.2).
While singles choices, lack of a strong radio hit, proper marketing and promotional tactics could be the cause of the latter issues, it isn’t. Ultimately the material serves as the major problem. The records just don’t measure up to her older work, which is why Blige should return to making honest music.
She can execute this task with the help of this three-step strategic plan.
– Let her fans miss her
– Create an album entirely from scratch – recruiting those who compliment her sound
– Prep for new album tactics in advance (Going with her gut)
First, Blige needs to take a break from recording her own music. It’s alright to record for other artists’ projects, but it’s time for her to free herself from recording an album every two years.
An album every two years would be great if the music was created organically and done without obligation from a record label, but it’s not. It’s time for the “Be Happy” artist to do just that — “Be Happy.”
Since Blige hasn’t released a full-length project of newly recorded music since 2011, she should stay in musical hibernation until at least December 2014 and continue to live as Mary J. Blige, the person. Not Mary J. Blige, the superstar.
During the time she spends away from recording her own project, she could do any and everything she always wanted to do but couldn’t do because she was chained to the studio. Hell, even start a family of her own. No matter what she chooses to do throughout her musical shuteye, she should stay away from the studio until her sessions are organic.
While her fans await the arrival of new music, she can treat them by digging into the archives of each album era and release unheard music. This could be a useful tool as she readies the first official single to her new album. Instead of releasing a buzz single off the project, create a movement by setting aside a date to release an unheard gem. It builds anticipation for the real thing.
She could even release the never-before-seen tour footage from her “The Breakthrough Experience,” and the “Love Soul (Live at The Gibson Amphitheatre)” show that her fans continue to ask her team to release.
Now while the “Everything” vocalist may not be releasing new music, it shouldn’t mean abandon the “A Mary Christmas” album. In mid-November, Blige should awake from her idleness and stack her holiday coins by reaching the platforms she didn’t touch during her first holiday promotional trek. Then once everyone is finished decking the halls, she should return back to musical solitude until the new year.
Once she’s lived life, the recording process should begin. For starters, the “It’s A Wrap” diva should drop Bryan Michael-Cox, Johnta Austin, Ne-Yo, Stargate, The-Dream and Tricky Stewart from her phone contacts.
The reason for giving those musical genesis their termination letters is because they aren’t adding anything new to the discography of Mary J. Blige. As mentioned earlier, the formula of her No. 1 song “Be Without You” is embedded in some of these music industry professionals’ minds to where it can’t be erased. Thus giving Blige the same song structure, crafting the same mediocre music that has reached its peak.
Though scoring a number-one single before or after the release of an album would be nice, it shouldn’t be forced by trying to relive an era of music. However, it could be achieved along with other great music amenities by building an album completely from scratch.
The forthcoming soul collection should sound fresh and reach a new realm in R&B that hasn’t been heard on radio. This can only be achieved if Blige creates an album from top to bottom and without the assistance of the hottest producers and songwriters sending beats and demos to a music email account.
The new album should have an organic feel, which means the music should evoke an emotion that doesn’t seem forced (i.e. obligated by her label). She should start entering the booth at random to spark ideas. The album’s scheme can come from either the producer or Blige or collectively.
To help aid with the direction of the Blige’s new album, she should enlist musical experts that compliment her soulful sound such as Eric Hudson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Jerry Wonda, Dave Young and Raphael Saadiq.
Now while she’s worked with these singers/songwriters/producers before, there is a major difference between this more superb roster and her run-of-the-mill guests.
(“Talk to Me” – produced by Eric Hudson)
Each time these music stars work with Blige, they compliment her tone, her lyrics and her direction which always takes her sound up a notch. They each kept up with Blige and the new path she has embarked on.
In addition, she should work with artists/producers/songwriters that she hasn’t worked with at all, or as much, who would still create music that provides the essence of MJB and add new direction to her music. Music heads like Joe Ryan, Pop & Oak, Miguel, Sevyn Streeter and Robert Glasper would be great additions to her album. Their earlier work with other artists has proved that they can step outside the box while capturing the artist’s musical style and helping reinvent it.
From the list of skillful artists and musicians, she should choose at least three to four producers and songwriters. The album credits should be short and sweet. She does not need a little league football team of songwriters/producers who don’t create a cohesive sound for the entire body of work. The album should flow and tell a story from beginning to end.
Once she’s assembled her album team, she can continue brainstorming the direction of the album. This can be done by gaining conversation from the music group she’s mustered. Their life experiences along with Blige’s thoughts can bring the best out of each other musically. Blige should also be open to tackle topics that she hasn’t before. At least one artist has to be brave enough to push the envelope on day-to-day life situations.
Afterwards, the songwriting process can begin. Here the songwriting should be treated like an assembly line — everyone working to build each song from verse to verse, chorus to bridge and so forth. During this operation, Blige should be as hands-on as possible, which means picking up her pen and actually writing. It’s obvious that she hasn’t been involved in the songwriting transactions as the credits allege.
Blige’s lyrics have always been simple, yet invoking an incredible amount of honesty. However, the lyrics as of late are more wordy than usual where it’s all about finding the best metaphor and being a wordsmith. Just be as straightforward as possible.
Take her songwriting on Chaka Khan’s “Disrespectful.” — “There are times that I do, miss you/but I must keep movin’ on/I never thought that I would wake up and you’d be gone.” It’s a perfect example of writing effortlessly while still packing a powerful message.
Following the songwriting stage, that’s when Blige and her team can decide if a song needs a guest feature or not. This task shouldn’t be done based on who’s the hottest commodity in music at the time. Similar to working with musicians and songwriters who compliment her, she should do the same with the artists — whether it be in hip-hop or R&B. Also, these should be people who are willing to come down to the studio and get in the booth with her. The record should sound like a collaboration, not two separate songs.
In addition, these artists should be ones who are willing to actually perform the song alongside her on late night shows, award shows and at least a concert or two. For example, the last two albums have featured tracks with Drake (“The One” & “Mr. Wrong”). However, not once did the two performed together to help build the momentum of either song. This shows it was merely done to garner a successful single and not an organic piece of work. This is why the records don’t reach their full potential.