Mary J. Blige — “Just Fine”

Released: 10.16.07

Peak: # 22

Over the course of her career, Mary J. Blige has returned obsessively to a single question: Can a strong woman overcome her penchant for unhealthy relationships and continue to make emotionally challenging art? Once you settle into an apparently loving marriage, commit to sobriety, and make “no more drama” your mantra, after all, you may have little lyrical recourse to anything beyond vapid bromides. In the 00s, Mary embodied, and fought against, those tiny lies lurking beneath the surface of even some of the greatest R&B: Strong women are invariably miserable, and female misery fuels aesthetic achievement.

That’s a serious enough challenge that I forgive her detours: The more evasive than celebratory upbeat R&B of Love & Life, and The Breakthrough‘s slip into the soppy (“Be Without You”) and the grandiose (“One”). Granted, those sidetracks would have peaked a lesser career. But the reconstituted Mary J. Blige really hit her ’00s stride with in 2007. Growing Pains grooved with an awareness that life was still plenty complicated, plenty emotionally rich, even without “drama.” And “Just Fine,” on which she releases herself from the grind of self-improvement, is Mary’s greatest burst of recorded joy.

As produced by Tricky Stewart and The-Dream, “Just Fine” is strewn with pleasurable details: A snappy little keyboard hook that dimly recalls Steely Dan’s “Peg,” that course vocal off-harmony on the latter choruses, the handclaps propel the song before the beat hits that excitable tangle of cowbells, the unexpected horns that swell up at the bridge. Throughout, you can hear a star production team of reveling in their moment of pop ascendance. More importantly, you can hear Blige pledging herself to stay rhythmically up-to-date, a goal that supercedes mere commercial expedience — in the best R&B tradition, it’s her way of committing to the present. After all, like the lady says, you know she loves music.

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  • Chris Molanphy  On February 8, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Soppy? “Be Without You” is a powerhouse of a single. That note she hits on “Hey-hey!” just before the outro is a spine-tingling moment.

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