Proper modern soul record. Hold the bling.
While modern soul is as much about the glitzy accoutrements, the soundbites, the hairstyles, the slang and the attitude as it is about the music, there’s a point on ‘No More Drama’ Blige’s best yet, that takes you back to a pre-bling era, and it’s like a wake-up call. ‘PMS’ – and yes, it’s actually about PMS, and it’s a brilliant, sparse evocation of all the shit that goes along with the monthly blues – is built entirely around a sample of Al Green’s ‘Simply Beautiful’. It’s totally bereft of rhythmic hiss, free of pneumatic beats and flashy vocalising. And it reminds you that, back in Green’s era, soul was almost entirely defined by the voice; you didn’t have to be a gimmicky screecher going on about thongs, and you didn’t have to bus in the Neptunes at every opportunity.
This is kinda key right now, in the aftermath of the tragic death of Aaliyah. She was defined by a track, ‘Try Again’, which was a masterpiece of futuristic production, more than it was a showcase for her voice. While she was always touted as the artist who could’ve revolutionised r&b, she was being eclipsed by Alicia Keys, who is far more in tune with the old skool soul icons than she is with machine beat divas like Beyonce. Perhaps sensing this change, now cruelly markered by the loss of a potential star, Mary J.Blige has aptly titled her new record.
It’s referring, of course, to her own history, the drama of a life which has always been brutally close to ghetto reality, a drama from which she is now liberated. But the music, too, even though it’s fashioned by the cream of cutting-edge r&b producers – Swizz Beatz, Rockwilder, Kenny Flav and, yes, the Neptunes – never gets in the way of that voice, never swamps her with histrionics. On ‘Beautiful Day’ she scats and croons like Jill Scott, while on the Dre-helmed ‘Family Affair’ the simplest of hiphop soul grooves sublty underpins a gorgeous party-anthem vocal, reminding us just what a great singer Blige is.
She may have been somewhat forgotten amidst the flashy stompers that have refigured US soul, but ‘No More Drama’ proves that she’s more in tune with how we’re listening now than anyone could’ve realised.