Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Walking Their Own Walks--Mary J. Blige and Rihanna

The fact that the great Somali rapper K'naan released a new EP today tells me I got to get off the stick.  My stack of singles I want to write about is getting so deep I can't focus on any of them and all my other work's picking up.  Meanwhile, the CDs I'm playing most (alongside both of Ariana Gillis's records) came out at the end of 2011 but missed my year end list.

The sad truth is I knew Mary J. Blige's My Life II would be a beautiful and important record, but the very nature of it (a sequel to 1994's My Life) made it feel like something I could get to in time.  Mary J. has such a classic quality that her new one didn't feel urgent to me right away...

(Does anyone else have such idiotic rationalizations for inaction?)

And I know this is going to seem like the strangest pairing I could have dreamed up, short of going with Hot Chelle Rae or something, but it was Rihanna who shamed me into a mad dash to the store a couple of weeks ago to bring home both of these women's new records. The 875th time I heard "We Found Love" and realized I was liking it better than ever--that if I didn't watch it I was going to lose it over this club candy--I felt ashamed that I'd turned my back on Rihanna (yes, I've been a fan since "Pon de Replay").  Once at the store, I couldn't buy her new record without also picking up the past two decades' queen of soul, Mary J. Blige.

I call it "club candy," but it's ridiculously intense what Rihanna does with Calvin Harris's "We Found Love."  I soon learned she does similar things throughout Talk That Talk. Rihanna overmatches everything cold about techno gimmickry--the kind of record you think you would only really appreciate in a club for its sonic equivalents to D-Lysergic 3D Surround--with the warmth of her vocal.  The arrangement is like a keyboard-driven videogame soundtrack escalating out of control, but she makes those "yellow diamonds in the light" shine and darkens the songs shadows enough to feel their chill.  I think the heart of it for me is the way her voice lilts through "The way I'm feeling I just can't deny," and then barely avoids freefall with "but I've got to let it go."  That's resolve and vulnerability tightly wound, and if you really hear her, that "hopeless place" not only clutches the throat, it shuts out the lights.  Her voice offers the only way out.  When I had to go to the store, I heard this single as core to what matters to me about music.

I wasn't wrong.  And Rihanna's and Mary J. Blige's most recent releases set a high bar for whatever comes next in 2012.  In some ways, they're opposite of course--Rihanna, the maybe 24 bratty sass who embraces celebrity like the Black Carribean version of Madonna she seems to want to be, and Mary J. Blige, the first hip hop R&B singer who really mattered, who was Rihanna's age when she made the first My Life (out-of the-box an old soul in the midst of an infantile pop culture).  Even the concepts behind these two albums are polar opposites. Rihanna's record is an orgy of DJ wizardry--house, techno and electro-whatchamacalitpalooza.  Mary J.'s statement of purpose with this album focuses on returning to live instrumentation and a return of "the real."

Comparing these two albums shows just how "real" music can be whether its made with the latest studio gadgets or acoustic, old school flavor (despite how Mary J. portrays the album, I wouldn't call much of it genuinely retro--it's 1974 soul with an ever-present hip hop eclecticism and 2012 production values).

Rihanna's album is the more obviously experimental--kaleidoscopic shards of beats swirling and exploding, while Rihanna's intensely present (and often raunchy) vocals bounce from bass thump to synth pump, always finding the warmth in the most cerebral and even conceptually cold sonic effects.  But the stand out moments come when the songs lock into the vulnerability lingering behind the singer's bravado--particularly in the middle movement from "We All Want Love" to "Drunk on Love" to "Roc Me Out" (the bravado regaining strength in this last only to confess, "I'll let you in on a little secret/I just want to be loved"). "We All Want Love," in particular, is the album's grand gesture.  An anthem about loneliness with the singer
fronting a chorus of her own backing vocals, this song comes close to being the "All You Need Is Love" for the perpetually lonesome.

When I started writing this, I wondered whether I should mention that I hesitated to pair Mary J. Blige with Rihanna because I feel protective of Mary J., her vulnerability (and, oh yes, that awesome strength) is so palpable. But, the truth occured to me, and is underscored by writing about these two records here, that I feel equally protective of Rihanna, a young artist whose relationship abuse has already partially defined her career.  She talks tough, but she genuinely seems more isolated than Mary J.

Mary J. starts her album by calling up My Life's producer, Puff Combs, and asking for his blessing, which he enthusiastically gives.  Her collaborations with Nas, Busta Rhymes and Beyonce sound more than inspired...they seem joyous, but that real kind of joy, that forged from pain. When she moves from the heart beat groove of "Feel Inside" to "Midnight Drive," she actually does something like Rihanna, singing
with herself, her alter ego, Brook-Lynn.  But the effect is different.  She seems to be confiding her passion to a girlfriend, and later, on "Next Level," when she says "I'm gonna tell my girls to go out tonight," it feels right.  When this girl wants to be alone with her man, she has people who understand her and give her space. She has people.

I can't remember the last R&B record I heard with this level of warmth and community present in
every performance.  Like Rihanna's record, this is a record about throwing one's self into relationships and tough situations (you know, living) no one else understands completely.  But Mary J's openness invites a sense of communal intimacy, the kind born from musicians fighting forward together.  The cover of Rufus and Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" perfectly embodies that vibe.

A review by my friend Lee Ballinger beautifully captures the beauty of the last three songs here, particularly the breathtaking acoustic guitar, piano and voice on what may also be my personal favorite, the heartbreaker, "Need Someone." (Review soon in RRC.) But the song I can't get out of my head tonight, "No Condition," comes at the midpoint.  Cast upon waves of layered percussion amidst washes of keyboard and strings, Mary J. resolves, "I've made my decision/Loving you's been a mission/I'm in no condition to love you." Backing vocals shift from descending counterpoints to something like an African tribal chant, reassuring her this loss does not have to be a defeat.  And anyone who's found liberation by accepting the inevitable can't help but be shaken by the beauty (even the hope, certainly the affirmation) in the pain.

In the end, I suppose it still feels I'm matching a heavyweight with an underweight upstart.  But they've both had me happily cornered in a conversation I very much need to have.  For one thing, they're both musically pushing in directions my instincts would have cautioned them against, and they're proving how much you miss when you try to limit an artist to your expectations. Rihanna's challenging me to open myself to experimentation that I might dismiss as superficial and gimmicky in the hands of an artist I trust less.  Mary J.'s reminding me that looking back to what's been left behind in today's music does not mean rewriting history or embracing nostalgia.  Most importantly, a kid half my age and a woman I could call my sister are both reminding me not to beat myself up over my isolating failures.  Our loneliness connects, and in that connection, we remember we may not be alone after all.