The first three tracks (including the singles "Just Fine" and "Work That") seek to convey a strong message to all female listeners.
The first three tracks (including the singles "Just Fine" and "Work That") seek to convey a strong message to all female listeners. On "Just Fine," Mary turns up the tempo and unabashedly sings - "now I like what I see when I'm looking at me when I'm walking past the mirror." It's the subject matter that helped to transform this peculiar tune into a Billboard chart-topper. Mary comes off very strong in her convictions and very believable in her delivery.
Once upon a time, R&B was synonymous with ballads, but they are often given short shrift in many contemporary R&B albums. Growing Pains is an ode to the vintage Mary sound that made her famous. The ballads are plentiful and the production lends itself to her soul-filled voice. "Hurt Again" is one of the album's most honest offerings, with Blige's character courageously confessing her inner most feelings for a new love interest. The fear of getting hurt again has convinced her to behave as if she couldn't care less about this man who's taking her breath away.
Mary then surrenders some of her independence on "Feel Like A Woman." She wants her man to pamper her like the woman she is and also shower her with the finer things in life (diamonds and designer clothes).
Growing Pains dissects the loving relationship she has with her husband and also with herself. The introspective mid-tempo cut "Fade Away" effectively contemplates how great invisibility would be at a moment when the valleys outnumber the peaks. A disappearing act is a tall order, but sometimes the only way to truly escape the madness.
The pain and drama that permeated the onset of Mary's recording career has definitely reached a new plateau of evolution. Her life has changed for the better, but it hasn't occurred overnight and love is not perfect. Mary explores the good and the bad on Growing Pains. Specifically, on "What Love Is," she explains that love feels like joy, pain, sunshine and rain. It's an excuse for dying and a reason to live.
Mary exits her comfort zone on the album's final two pop/R&B tracks, "Smoke" and "Come To Me (Peace)." Both songs challenge Mary musically and allow her to test her range with a much more commercial sound. Some of her critics have criticized her for not taking more risks with her sound. "Come To Me (Peace)" is edgy without seeming uncomfortable. It's a different approach for the often-disputed Hip-Hop Queen of Soul. These two songs, especially the far-fetched "Smoke," may draw in her older fan-base and alienate the young ones.
However, fans of all ages will not be disappointed with Growing Pains. Mary J. Blige knows her soul and chooses to own it. She soulfully delivers a passionate project that she hopes will guide many young women toward self-acceptance. The lessons are all in the realities of her very public 16-year journey. She wants everyone to take a front row seat for the production. The new album is called Growing Pains. Through her own admission, Mary J. Blige is just a work in progress...just like the rest of us.
By Akim Bryant