What’s The 411? The State Of Mary J. Blige’s Music And Steps To Improve Substance

MJB-Elle

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.”

MARY-ALBUM 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.

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Antwane Folk is the editorial assistant at RatedRnB.com.

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4 Songs from Mariah Carey’s ‘E=MC²’ That Should Have Been Number One

Ten years ago, Mariah Carey’s faithful Lambs across the world were pulling out their TI-89 calculators to solve the equation E=MC², the title of her 11th studio album.

The album came three years after The Emancipation of Mimi, Carey’s comeback album and the best-selling album of 2005. The legendary diva won many awards for her 10th studio album, including three Grammy Awards. The accolades that probably meant the most to Carey were her two number one singles: “We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us.”

The latter tune helped Carey bag her 17th Hot 100 chart-topper, tying her with Elvis Presley for the most number one singles by a solo artist. She beat the rock and roll king’s record two months before the release of E=MC² with her sexually fantasizing single “Touch My Body.”

Speaking to the Associated Press in 2008, Carey praised herself for surpassing Presley.”For me, in my mind the accomplishment is just that much sweeter,” she said. “In terms of my ethnicity, always feeling like an outsider, always feeling different … for me it’s about saying, ‘Thank you Lord, for giving me the faith to believe in myself when other people had written me off.'”

What’s baffling though is that following the commercial success of “Body,” the five-octave Chanteuse pumped out three more singles (“Bye Bye,” “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time,” and “I Stay in Love”) but none were fortunate enough to be inducted into Carey’s hall of fame of No. 1’s.

Yes, an artist’s name alone isn’t enough to sell a single. Without backing from radio stations and proper promotion, the chances of a single swimming versus sinking are slimmer than Carey’s ‘90s waistline.

But in all fairness: Carey’s E=MC² album potentially had the right formula to equate her 19th number-one single on the Hot 100 and continue her reign as the undisputed queen of the No. 1’s.

Now as we playback E=MC² (and mimic her iconic finger twinkle) on its 10th anniversary, here are four songs that should have topped the Hot 100.

1. “I’m that Chick”

Credits: Mariah Carey / Johnta Austin / Mikkel Storleer Eriksen / Tor Erik Hermansen / Rod Temperton (Writers); Carey and Stargate (Producers)

Who’s to blame for Carey’s dreamy number, “I’m That Chick” not being worked as a single and skating to the No. 1 spot on the Hot 100?

Revisiting the disco era and Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” the confident singer tiptoed on the dance floor to enjoy nightlife. Like Usher, Carey found love in the club and used some of the best metaphors to let him know she is everything and more. She also referenced two hip-hop legends Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. to get her point across.

“Take this seriously / Like Pac, all eyes on me / That’s right you are intrigued (I’m that chick you like),” she sings lightly. “I do’s it naturally / Hypnotize like Biggie / But you ain’t havin’ dreams / I’m that chick you like.”

“I’m That Chick” had just the right amount of attitude to dance its way to number one.

2. “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time”

Credits: Mariah Carey / Aldrin Davis / Mark DeBarge / Crystal Johnson / Etterlene Jordan (Writers); Carey and DJ Toomp (Producers)

It goes without saying that Carey’s flirty single “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” was shamefully robbed from basking in number one glory — and this was long before T.I. was enlisted for the remix.

Borrowing remnants of DeBarge’s “Stay With Me” for the hook and playful production, the jaunty love song heard Carey reassuring her then-husband Nick Cannon that it’s not a game and she’s here to stay.

From its timely release just ahead of summer to its proper video treatment and catchy lyrics, the cutesy tune had many qualifications to become a hit on the Hot 100. However, DJ Toomp co-produced ditty didn’t get close the top slot. It only reached No. 58.

3. “For the Record”

Credits: Mariah Carey / Bryan-Michael Cox / Adonis Shropshire (Writers); Carey and Cox (Producers)

Tell me one good reason “For the Record” wasn’t released as a single?

Bridging the sounds of a beautiful violin and a meek keyboard, Carey wanted to rewrite history with a former mate who foolishly let her go. Even though he’s moved on, she decided to let his mistake of leaving her sink in more by reminding him of how far her love went for him.

“For the record / You’ll always be a part of me, no matter what you do / And for the record / Can’t nobody say I didn’t give my all to you,” she sang.

As history shows, the New York native has an impressive track record with slow to mid-tempo songs (“Dreamlover,” “Always Be My Baby” and “Don’t Forget About Us”) leading the Hot 100. “For the Record” would have been in good company — just saying.

4. “Side Effects” featuring Jeezy

Credits: Mariah Carey / Jay Jenkins / Crystal Johnson / Scott Storch (Writers); Carey and Storch (Producers)

Carey has been fully capable rocketing herself to the top slot of the Hot 100 without any guest appearances. Out of her 18 number-one singles, she has 13 without a featured artist(s). But for her E=MC² era, we’re sure Mimi’s Lambs wouldn’t have minded her calling on hip-hop’s Snowman to release their blazing collaboration.

Blended with a knocking beat and techno effects, Carey had taken her final dose of torture from her unruly lover. Although she finished her prescribed bottle of heartache and pain, she still had to deal with the aftermath of the dissolved love affair.

“I kept my tears inside ’cause I knew if I / Started I’d keep cryin’ for the rest of my / Life with you I finally built up the strength / To walk away don’t regret it / But I still live with the side effects,” she sings.

Mary J. Blige Covers Elton John’s ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’

Mary J. Blige loves her some Elton John. As part of his newly released tribute album, Revamp: The Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin, the R&B legend rendered her bluesy interpretation of his 70s song “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.”

Speaking to Billboard, Blige explained why she covered this tear-jerker from the Rocket Man’s discography. “I specifically chose to sing ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’ because of how beautiful and sad the song is and it was also so cathartic for me to sing,” she said. “Elton and Bernie’s songs, so inspiring and powerful, will continue to stand the test of time.”

This isn’t Blige’s first time covering “Sorry.” She recorded the song for 2004’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason soundtrack, as well as performed it for John at the 2004 MOBO Awards where singer Brandy was shown in her feelings.

Listen to Blige’s updated version of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” below.

10 Underrated Songs by Keyshia Cole

In February, we launched our new monthly feature, Underrated, with R&B legend Toni Braxton and her notable album gems as our primary focus. This time around, we are putting the spotlight on singer-songwriter Keyshia Cole, who is now a certified R&B vet.

The Oakland, Calif. native introduced herself to listeners in 2004 with her expressive voice and relatable narrative on the troubling tales of love and life. Now, seven albums into her decade-long career, the Grammy-nominated artist has a discography that has a few celebrated hits but an abundance of material that hasn’t gotten its rightful respect.

Take a look at our list of Cole’s 10 most slept-on records. We even share a love lesson or two about some of these records. (Sidenote: This list of songs does not include material from her Point of No Return album or her latest album 11:11 Reset, which she plans to repackage with three new songs.)

1. “Love, I Thought You Had My Back” from the album The Way It Is (2005)

Credits: Keyshia Cole, Randolph Murph, Ralph Eskridge, Clarence Johnson Jr, Frederick Taylor (Writers); Ron Fair and Toxic (Producers)

For an artist who sings directly from their soul, being pitch perfect doesn’t normally matter. Keyshia Cole proved this on fan-favorite and one of her best post-breakup anthems “Love, Thought You Had My Back.”

Sampling “Love Jones” by Brighter Side of Darkness, Keyshia finds herself interrogating love for not holding up its end of the bargain after her latest love-affair blew up in flames.

Now that the relationship has ended, Keyshia offers a word of advice to listeners who still believe in a happily-ever-afters. “You gotta know your focus in life / And if love is your focus /Then man pay attention,” she says.

2. “We Could Be” from the album The Way It Is (2005)

Credits: Keyshia Cole, Errol “Poppi” McCalla Jr. (Writers); Errol “Poppi” McCalla Jr., Ron Flair (Producers)

Have you ever wanted to take a friendship to the next level with someone? Keyshia found herself sharing those same feelings on this silky track off her debut album.

Over a slow-burning instrumental, and singing with unfledged vocals, Keyshia pictures a perfect life with a friend she wants to pursue a deeper connection with.

“If you’d be cool with me / You’ll see, that I’m all you need and all that you dream / And never would leave, you’ll be by my side forever / Swear to God we’ll grow old together, then reality would be you and me,” she sings.

3. “Fallin Out” from the album Just Like You (2007)

Credits: Keyshia Cole, Soulshock, K. Karlin, Tammie L. Harris (Writers); Soulshock and Karlin (Producers)

After sharing the spotlight with some of hip-hop’s OG’s (Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim and Too $hort) on the first two tracks of Just Like You, Keyshia takes on “Fallin’ Out” by herself and unleashes a bottle of emotions on the way things used to be with her lover.

Starting off with dramatic strings, and a sizzling sound effect, the R&B veteran dwindles out of love with a man who isn’t who she first fell in love with. “I remember when, I’d be with my friends / You checked on me and made time to call / But how things have changed? — now I don’t hear from you at all,” she sings.

Many critics have deeded Keyshia Cole’s Just Like You album a daughter to Mary J Blige’s personal My Life album. This opinion holds some weight as “Fallin’ Out” slightly mirrors Rose Royce’s “I’m Goin’ Down,” which was made popular in the ‘90s by Blige. Keyshia’s song, however, takes a far deeper lyrical approach than Blige’s bluesy rendition.

4. “Give Me More” from the album Just Like You (2007)

Credits: Keyshia Cole and Scott Storch (Writers); Scott Storch (Producer)

Come through, drums! With producer Scott Storch still blazing, Keyshia called on him to bring the bass and co-pen this mid-tempo banger.

On the retro track, Keyshia thought she found someone special, but she was sadly mistaken when he started playing games with her heart. After experiencing a breakup, she requires a little “more” from her next man.

“Give Me More” allows Storch to put his musicianship on display as he lets loose with an electric guitar towards the end of the track.

5. “Erotic” from the album A Different Me (2008)

Credits: Keyshia Cole, Ron Fair, Theron Feemster (Writers); “THE-RON” Feemster (Additional Production by Ron Fair) (Producer)

Following the multiple Grammy nominations for her Just Like You album, Keyshia decided to make a drastic artistic shift, leaning more towards a universal sound for her follow-up, A Different Me.

Backed by an eerie sci-fi production, “Erotic” begins with a weird message from an unidentified life form. Don’t press skip though. Keyshia owns her experimental journey, as she shifts vocally like a five-speed sports car in-between the lanes of the futuristic beat.

6. “This is Us” from the album A Different Me (2008)

Credits: E. Bogart, V. Horn, J.T. Miller (Writers); Ron Fair and Jason T. Miller (Producers)

If there was one record from Keyshia’s A Different Me album that had the ability to reach a more mainstream audience, it was her country-inspired song, “This is Us.”

Supported by an acoustic guitar, a timid drum pattern and sugary analogies on an imperfectly perfect relationship, Keyshia showcased that she was able to tap into new genres of music and sound outstanding.

Allegedly, “This is Us” was expected to be released as the fourth and final single from A Different Me. Keyshia’s pregnancy probably played a huge factor in the failure to move forward with “Us” as a single.

7. “Tired of Doing Me” featuring Tank from the album Calling All Hearts (2010)

Credits: Keyshia Cole, F. Taylor, M. Quaham, D. Babbs (Tank), J. Franklin, R. Newt, J. Valentine, K. Stephens; Toxic**, Ron Fair, N8**, and Song Dynasty (Producers)

Keyshia is never afraid to share an R&B moment with artists she admires. She invites Tank to help her explain the emptiness of being alone after realizing the value of finding that special person.

In separate verses, the R&B General recounts his life as a bachelor while Keysh explains why she was hesitant about falling in love again. The two singers find a happy medium on the bridge, accepting that “doing me ain’t working no more.”

8. “What You Do To Me” from the album Calling All Hearts (2010)

Credits: Keyshia Cole, Chink Santana (Writers); Chink Santana (Producer)

Caught up in the rapture of love with then-husband Daniel “Boobie” Gibson, Keyshia tried her luck at making some “grown-folk” music. She succeeded with this intimately composed ballad.

On the sensual track, Keyshia paints the ultimate love scene in her head about how her man makes her temperature rise. “I can feel you kissing me, oh so softly / Making love baby, I can feel your heartbeat / Baby, don’t stop,” she passionately sings.

She is vocally excellent on this song, using the right breathing techniques to set the mood just right for love-making. This record is perfect to play for an anniversary or a just an “I love you” moment for your significant other.

9. “Who’s Gonna Hold Me Down” from the album Woman to Woman (2012)

Credits: Keyshia Cole, Kuk Harrell, Guordan Banks, Jessyca Wilson, Isaacs Hayes (Writers); BINK! Humble Monsta (Producer)

“Shaft!” is the immediate phrase that comes to mind when the funky instrumental starts off the track. Keyshia does Isaac Hayes’ “Shafts Theme” justice with this four-minute conversational tune on recouping after the dust settles from an unsuccessful romance.

On the BINK!-produced track, Keyshia uses her speaking voice to informally elaborate on the painful accuracies of how we repeatedly let our lovers hurt us but always managing to find it in our hearts to give them one more chance. Most times we convince ourselves we need them when we actually are better off without them. “When I’m with you, my heart skips a beat / Oh, I want you back I need you bad / But I gotta get over you, “ she sings.

Thankfully, she gathers feelings towards the end of the deluxe edition record, leaving us with a final realization. “Guess you gotta let that go / If it ain’t yours, it ain’t yours / You gotta let it go / I now it’s hard but you can do better,” she preaches.

10. “Next Move” from the album Woman to Woman (2012)

Credits: Keyshia Cole, Kuk Harrell, Guordan Banks, Jessyca Wilson (Writers); BINK! Humble Monsta (Producer)

After a lukewarm response for her Calling All Hearts album, Keyshia came strong with Woman to Woman. Her hard work shows on this slow-paced ballad featuring background vocals from Robin Thicke.

Being in a relationship without a title two things: mixed feelings and heartbreak. To limit confusion, simply making the “next move” and asking the hard but seriously needed questions, “Are we going to be monogamous or should we just see other people?”

If we don’t have this conversation early on, we’ll probably end up like Keyshia does on the second verse. “I hate the fact, we never set the rules / So I can’t even trip when you want to act brand new / But I still get mad when you walk out the room / But the truth is: I’m not the only one loving you,” she painfully remembers.

HONORABLE MENTION

“Same Thing (Interlude)” from the album Just Like You

Credits: Keyshia Cole, T. Rey and C. Brown (Writers); T Rey and C. Broan (Producers)

Serving as a transition between songs “Heaven Sent” and “Got to Get My Heart Back,” this nearly two-minute tease makes us want to fight Keyshia. While she pours out her emotions about the redundant behavior of her two-timing ex, she indirectly plays with ours. This interlude deserved more. We wanted more.

Did we get this list right? Let us know in the comment section.

Follow Antwane @9thwonderofPR

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