Growing Pains? Gee, do you think she’s going to show us that smile again? Share with us the laughter and love? And what were all those histrionics in her last seven albums? Mere playground bumps and bruises? In short, it’s hard to merely get beyond the very title of Mary J. Blige’s eighth overstuffed collection of affirmations, self-definitions, and keepin’-it-real-isms. If she has grown so much, why do the same issues of doubt and shame that have plagued her into fits of melisma-inflected garrulousness keep returning time and time again, like the plots of so many family sitcoms?
In an interview with MTV, Blige claims she finally realized that pain is not something one ever grows out of, that she has finally come to accept it as a constant. I believe her claim, and after netting two armloads of Grammys for very publicly embracing that pain, I’m sure she does too. I also believe that a crying jag should be handled with the same decorum as a good belch, and both should be over about as quickly; the entire concept of any given Mary J. Blige confessional—which is to say any given Mary J. Blige song—shouldn’t even appeal to someone like me at all, so it’s a measure of how good Blige is at selling her shtick that they often do.
Blige, on the other hand, sings as though emotions were the last thing she had left. And those emotions frequently don’t particularly work out in her favor. Take the otherwise upbeat lead single, “Just Fine,” in which Blige grabs onto the collar of a good day and refuses to let go. The production of Tricky Stewart and Jazzy Pha is crisp and sunny, but the song itself doesn’t quite achieve liftoff, and it might have something to do with the stakes Blige has set up for herself. The chorus, after all, isn’t simply “My life’s just fine,” but rather “My life’s just fine, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine” and so on and so forth in a classic case of “Is she telling us or is she telling herself?” By the time she finishes stating her case with the refrain, “I got my mind right, I ain’t going to let you kill it,” you have to wonder whether Blige is more terrified by her good days than her bad ones. At least you can look forward to when your bad days end; with good days, you dread that inevitability.
If one of the disc’s later Prozac party anthems, “Til’ the Morning,” feels a little more convincingly cool and collected, it’s probably only because Pharrell Williams is almost incapable of tailoring his music to others’ personalities. It’s a nice tune—actually, it’s more like three or four nice tunes stitched together wantonly—but it doesn’t radiate with the hard-won conviction of Blige’s best uppers, “Be Happy” and “All That I Can Say.” In contrast, it’s a Stepford jam. That said, both “Just Fine” and “Til’ the Morning” at least fulfill the manic half of the bipolarity Blige’s devoted fans have come to expect from their beloved masochist-sponge.
More distressing is the fact that the downers are hardly equal and opposite: they’re much more, and as convincing as she’s ever been. Those only hoping for more drama, or at least a good cry, will stare down “Fade Away” (“It’s starting to rain again, everything’s gone now, even the sun…What have I done?”) and come face to face with a scarily credible blank slate. Blige reigns in her dependable wailing, and those used to that trademark rasp that inflects her most impassioned sob stories will note that she’s eerily solid by the string-laden climax. “Hurt Again,” which is sonically spare (like a musical suicide watch), kicks off with the alienating “Sometimes I really don’t want to have to speak my mind,” though she immediately clarifies that she’s afraid her feelings will poison her beloved’s image of her. This conundrum, in a nutshell, defines what’s both most compelling and most limiting about Blige’s Growing Pains: She keeps her most salable characteristic, her emotiveness, under duress, which provides tension but no release. I can’t wait to hear how the strain will inevitably explode on her next album.