This is a series dedicated to women who despite success in the U.S. Music Industry, have est. a very complicated image for themselves.
Round 17 of this series came from a Twitter follower of mine who has some music industry know-how of her own [@Jillian002]. This installment will deal with the Andre Harrell & Diddy annointed "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul", Mary J. Blige. Her Behind the Music episode is one of the better "reboot" episodes of late (Anything to makeup for Nicole Scherzinger is the best damn episode in my book.) but there's still something to examine about the career and placement of one of many W.W.C.I.I.T.M.I.
1992 saw the release of her debut effort, What's the 411?. This began a working relationship with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (When his stage name was Puff Daddy). 5 singles were spawned from the album, the second being one of her early signature hits.
The lead single was "You Remind Me" was a modest success, peaking at #29 on the Hot 100 and going to #1 on the R&B charts.
The second and most famous single of the pack was "Real Love". Peaking at #7 on the Hot 100 and being her second #1 on the R&B charts in a row, the song has been retrospective bait for years on end. The video and its look of baseball jersey and cap mixed with combat boots would be add to the retrospective bait. Two other singles would be released to little fanfare on the Hot 100 but end up within the Top 15 of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts.
Debut artist cliches aside, this was the beginning of Mary's image being permanently molded as "Neo Soul". Despite being named the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary ended up starting a niche of R&B/Soul music. Many retrospectives remembered this when Mary made her TV debut on Yo! MTV Raps and were introduced to her at the time especially, unique take on R&B (Apart from the completely matched 90s fashion staple Cross Colours ensemble on Mary) What's the 411? peaked at #6
Late 1994 to early 1995 saw the release of her sophomore effort, My Life. 4 known singles would be spawned from the album, including one of the most covered songs on reality singing competitions.
The lead single "Be Happy" was another modest hit on the Hot 100 peaking at #29 and another solid R&B hit peaking at #6 on the R&B charts.
Then came her cover of the Rose Royce song "I'm Goin' Down". At the time, the song was another modest success peaking at #22 on the Hot 100 and #13 on the R&B charts. This would mark a good point musically as it proved to be her second biggest hit on the Hot 100 at the time. In terms of impact in the future, this song has been covered on singing competition shows like exposes on the news. Name a show, they covered this song. Hell, I remember Sera Hill from S2 and Taylor Beckham from S4 of The Voice covering this song for their Blind Auditions.
Two more songs would be released from the album but the job of the second single helped the album succeed. Yet despite a song like "I'm Goin' Down", My Life only peaked at #7. Despite the peak number keep in mind of this. This is when Blige was battling depression, alcoholism and being rumor-mill fodder with her abusive at the time boyfriend, K-Ci of K-Ci & JoJo.
In her BTM, Blige knew the type of man K-Ci was but also, the person she was at the time. Damaged backgrounds on both ends made their relationship tumultuous. Although it reinforced the belief that pain makes beautiful art.
'95 saw her feature on Method Man's cover of "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need
to Get By" prove to be a success by going to #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts.
Then came her soundtrack turned 3rd album contribution, "Not Gon' Cry". Released in '96 to help the soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale, this song became one of Blige's most recognizable and quite possibly her signature tune. It peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and became her 3rd #1 on the R&B charts.
Released in 1997, Share My World benefited greatly from "Not Gon' Cry" as the album went #1, making this her first album to do so. Subsequent singles "I Can Love You" (U.S. only release), "Everything" and "Seven Days" got more fanfare on the R&B charts [going #2, #2 and #3 respectively]. However, by this album Blige's recurring themes/album mood did show a lighter side as she had made strides in battling the depression and alcoholism in her life.
Her fourth effort, Mary saw a 1999 release. Like her previous work , 4 stateside singles would be released to relative R&B chart fanfare. Lead singles "All That I Can Say" and subsequent releases "Deep Inside", "Give Me You" and "Your Child" each charted within the Top 25 of the R&B charts [#6, #9, #23 and #21 respectively]. Why the Hot 100 chart positions aren't mentioned is because sensationalized crossover status had not yet occurred. "Real Love" and "Not Gon' Cry" came pretty damn close. Yet a #1 on the Hot 100 had been elusive until a reunion with P. Diddy off of her next album did just that. Mary peaked at #2.
2001 saw the release of Blige's 5th effort, No More Drama. The album was reminiscent of her debut; but the lead single managed to do what previous and future singles could not. Become a #1 hit on the Hot 100.
The lead single, "Family Affair" [with the production help of Dr. Dre] became Mary's sole #1 hit on the Hot 100. The single was seen as a major departure from the tormented soul of previous works...that in many ways assured longevity in her career. However, the song would go #1 on both the Hot 100 and the R&B charts. In crossover terms this is idealist appeal; meaning that despite mainstream success, the hardcore base of the act in question did not feel alienated.
Subsequent releases "No More Drama" and "Rainy Dayz" continued the success of the lead single by going #15 and #12 respectively on the Hot 100 and #16 and #8 on the R&B charts respectively. Additionally, "No More Drama" has become a S.T.W.D. on reality singing shows; S.T.W.D. standing for Song That Won't Die [gets covered and performed a lot.] No More Drama peaked at #2.
2003 saw the release of her 6th effort, Love & Life. BTM revealed that part of this was her working with P. Diddy again who after a brief falling out both came together to make this effort. Despite the reunion, the album was met with positive to mixed reviews. Meaning that despite the consistency, this was not the most indicative of either Blige's talent or potential. 3 of the 5 singles released charted in the Top 40 of the Hot 100 and R&B fanfare was a bit slimmer for those 3 singles as they made the Top 25 of the R&B charts. Despite the lukewarm singles placements, Love & Life peaked at #1 starting a 3 album trend of going to #1.
2005 saw the release of her 7th effort, The Breakthrough. This would repeat No More Drama era Mary as the lead single would be strong on the charts. The lead single was "Be Without You". One of her more theatrical releases of the time, the song peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts. The music video would be one of her most well received (VH1 Top 20 Video Countdown played this almost every week the video was on its countdown.)
Cut past a surprise collaboration with U2 remaking their hit "One", this seemed to mark Blige's commercial peak in terms of single reception and album peak, even though her next effort would achieve one of these.
The Breakthrough peaked at #1.
2007 saw the release of her 8th album, Growing Pains. The album would spawn three singles, including one of her happiest sounding cuts in her discography. The lead single from the album was "Just Fine". A prelude to the self-confidence anthem wave of 2011 [Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" being the starting point], "Just Fine" in sonic context was the happiest Blige had sounded since "Family Affair" and "Real Love". The video for the song would also be as well received as "Be Without You" VH1 wise. Chart success was moderate on the Hot 100, peaking at #22.
However, this was more return to form [not so much reversal of fortune] of her first album success ratings as the R&B charts seemed to favor her more than the Hot 100. "Just Fine" would be highest peaking of the 3 singles even in that regard, peaking at #3. Subsequent releases "Work That" and "Stay Down" would peak at #16 and #34 respectively.
Even with the slight Hot 100 shunning, Growing Pains peaked at #1.
2009 saw the release of her 9th effort Stronger With Each Tear. The album spawned 3 singles in the U.S. [there was an international only single and an iTunes only cover of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"] The lead single was "The One", a collaboration with rising Degrassi alum turned rap star Drake. Even with its success in the "urban" market, chart success was modest at best with a peak of #32...on the R&B charts. Subsequent releases "I Am" & "We Got Hood Love" ft. Trey Songz ended up as two Top #25 R&B singles at #4 and #25 respectively.
The reason this section seems short? Raise your hand if you remember the promotion for this particular album? *crickets...katydids...insects...* Promotional shortcomings aside, Stronger With Each Tear peaked at #2.
My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1) is the 10th and most recent studio album from Blige, released in 2011. Here's a slight spoiler in terms of album promotion; it ended up just like its predecessor. O_O The lead single was "25/8". The chart success of this played out like a majority of Blige's work; on the R&B charts [even though her material up until now had been getting favorable buzz from music critics]. "25/8" ended up peaking at #35 on the R&B charts. Other singles "Mr. Wrong" ft. Drake, "Why" ft. Rick Ross and "Don't Mind" would peak at #10, #30 and #35 respectively.
An odd level of success was found with her second collaboration with Drake. Even weirder in theory is that this is the only single from the album to chart on the Hot 100 at #87. In action, this does make sense as by this time, Drake's career was becoming the thing it is now (Even if his music quality is less than impressive.) My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1) given the weirder lack of proper promotion, ended up peaking at #5.
Cut past her acting in a Tyler Perry movie, compilation albums and an attempt to give Mariah Carey a run for her money in "PUN-FERRIFIC Christmas Album Title" realness at the Swear Ball EXTRAVAGANZA (Good try with A Mary Christmas but Mariah still wins with Merry Christmas II You)
With relative likability across all boards, what makes Mary one of many W.W.C.I.I.T.M.I.? She falls under one of the weirdest "Catch 22"/"Damned if You Do & Damned if You Don't" tropes in commercial music.
It took some of her darkest material "Not Gon' Cry" to crack in the Top 5 of the Hot 100, but it was the peppy single "Family Affair" that finally gave her a number 1 hit. Her initial sound was a fusion of Hip-Hop and Soul, yet she's hailed as the best of contemporary R&B. Her heartbreak-laden singles made her but they also seem to pigeonhole her.
At the very least she's a critical and commercial darling to the tune of Shakira [neither of their albums were perceived as duds] but she also found a bit of the Madonna issue discussed in her post c. her Confessions on a Dance Floor. Her consistency as a singles artist wasn't adding up to the critical acclaim and even high album peaks she had attained.
Even some of her collaborations have met Jekyll and Hyde reception. Her second collaboration with Drake was met with mixed reception due to the presence of auto-tune in the song. In this context, this was playing up the sweep of auto-tune that had been taking off since T-Pain made it a huge mainstream thing [even though Cher and even Faith Hill did auto-tune long before then]. Yet that earned better chart fanfare than her collaboration with U2 [in some cases her U2 collaboration was met with less than stellar reviews. O_O]
So in essence, Mary J. Blige is one of many W.W.C.I.I.T.M.I. simply because in career analysis and retrospect, she's been all over the place but has the critical and commercial success to back her place in music up. Even if some of her music reads as "too dark" or some of her other stuff isn't quite up to snuff, there's always been a rare sign of her seeming invested in her music the whole way through. Something that can't be said of other acts in the industry let alone the others in this series.