For Lauren, one of the strongest women I'll ever imagine much less believe I've known:
This was a tough one for me. I’m coming out of a 16 year relationship and marriage; Mary J. Blige is coming out of the same length marriage, and she's brought a whole album hard-focused on the process. “Thick of It” was the first single because that’s precisely what it’s about.
Sure, sounds helpful, and it is, but it's also every bit as hard. It would be easy if Mary simply got your anger out and cheered you forward. That’s what a lot of critics seem to hear. But what I hear is the push pull of the keys and bass at the center of “Thick of It." This album is about being pushed one way and pulled another because the separation of two human beings cannot be done without unfathomable pain.
Blige does express that pain, and an anger fingering fantasies of revenge, but the brilliance of MJB is that she’s too honest an artist not to turn the questions over in her head. “Love ain’t just black and white,” she announces from the start. Or the thorny undercurrents of the relatively soothing soul of “U & Me (Love Lesson),” a record about how much we don’t know about our most basic motivations.
Despite the two nods to The London Sessions, the spare ballad “Smile” or the raver “Find the Love,” most of this album is firmly anchored in the rich blend of utterly contemporary American hip hop Blige has come to sling like gut bucket blues. And if that doesn’t sound like the highest compliment, you’re not hearing me.
The album starts, over a building but halting piano, with the singer asking how she reached this hellish precipice in her life and answering herself, “I got here with love.” Each time she answers herself, the paradox becomes clearer. Love can be hell, fire and brimstone hell, but this woman knows (and her fans know) everything good came from that same source.
Of course, Blige is making a career statement. Since her first crossover hit, “Real Love,” she’s been about where love takes her. Her empathy has been her guide, and it’s kept her rooted to her audience in a way celebrity divas simply can’t replicate. One might cast Ms. Blige in a VH1 special with that name, but “celebrity” or “diva” just doesn’t quite fit.
Blige carefully maintains that connection to her audience because that is how she sees herself--as one of her fans who's made it to the mainstage. She can write inspirational lyrics, but she respects herself too much to skip the confusion and the pain. At the end of a decade of wrestling with the vagaries of love in marriage, Blige has made her most explicit navigational album to get the hell out—using “love” as the north star and “truth” as the random variable that must be figured into the equation.
Funny thing, on my Target exclusive, the two extra songs are “The Naked Truth” (which is about the most exposed, romantic yearning on the record) and “Love in the Middle” (which is explaining just how the singer keeps her balance on this love question). In other words, the bonus tracks underscore the need to square the “love” and “truth” that troubles this entire record.
Does it square the circle? Of course not, but it circles the square, and that brings everyone listening into the problem asking the right questions. Title track “Strength of a Woman” does something more, too. It celebrates the singularity of womanhood as well as the many feminine roles ignored by manhood and often under siege to men’s virility. Of course, the main key here is also “love,” all you really need.
She delivers that message without idealism or irony. It’s something sky-is-blue knowable. Love is how she got here, and it’s how we got here. If you wanna keep your eye on the ball, you gotta keep an eye on love.
In reality, easier said than done doesn’t begin to explain the problems that lie ahead, but it’s why people make music. And it’s why we play it, and it’s one way we hang on.