BY TIMOTHY FINN
KANSAS CITY STAR/TNS
Danny Alexander has been writing about music for decades for various print and online media. He spent three years exploring the music of one of his favorite artists, Mary J. Blige.
In March, the University of Texas Press published the Kansas City writer’s book, “Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige,” which covers the arc of her 25-year music career. Alexander spoke to The Star recently about Blige, her stature in music and what he learned from this project.
Q: What prompted you to write this book?
A: I wanted to write about women in the past quarter century, and no one really compares to Mary J. Blige in terms of the depth, stature and complexity and evolution, the maturity and substance.
Women in general and Black artists very often aren’t talked about as artists. Some White men are analyzed to death. Everything they do is an artistic statement. I wanted to write about her as an artist.
Q: When and how did you become interested in her music?
A: My first reaction to her wasn’t really positive. I was into the wave of music she was part of, that whole steady growth of women singers who seemed to come in the wake of Janet Jackson’s “Control,” Black women mixing hip-hop and soul and R&B in the late ’80s and early ’90s who took a larger role on the radio than before. I was really into that: Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Jody Watley, Pebbles and others.
Mary J. Blige came along and there was all this hype about Puff Daddy and the idea that this was something new, and she was the queen of hip-hop/soul and was doing something no one else had done. To me it sounded like the Puff Daddy version of the sort of New Jack Swing kind of music happening at the time. I let Puff Daddy’s name lead me to believe she was a producer’s pawn.
Q: What changed your mind?
A: I didn’t really get into it at all until “My Life” (1994). What really caught me was that Rose Royce cover, “I’m Goin’ Down,” which was really moving and powerful and hit me like great soul music.
When she broke away from Puff Daddy and made “Share My World,” I was surprised how powerful and ambitious it was. From then on, I thought she’d grown into the role she was supposed to be playing.
She didn’t have the strongest voice. But she did have her own thing, this sort of rawness that got over, especially with the rappers at the time.
That video of her and Method Man, “You’re All I Need,” that was very symbolic of what she represented at that moment: an R&B singer who could be embraced by rap.
Q: Talk about her voice, which is so elemental to her identity.
A: I think it’s gotten better. Her voice was pretty rough when she started. It was affected. She grew up in both Pentecostal and Baptists churches, and she learned a lot from singing in the Pentecostal church.
She knows how to make people feel things with her voice. It’s very raw and powerful, and over the years she has figured out how to refine it. I think she’s a much better singer today than she has ever been.
Q: What is her place in music today?
A: I think of her in terms of a certain movement I think is important in terms of pop music history: the late ’80s to early ’90s, when women were like 25 percent of the hit singles. It’s never been that high again.
She is sort of the survivor of that group. There is also Mariah Carey. But people look at them differently. Mary is now someone people perceive as having substance.
She spent 15 years writing about trying to be in a committed relationship and marriage and the ups and downs of everyday life as opposed to the huge romantic drama and struggles of youth.
In my head, that’s sort of a Springsteen comparison: What do you do once you’re no longer a rebel, when now you’re the grownup? I think of only a handful of artists that way.
It’s hard to think of others in R&B who kind of represent the working class the way she does.
Everyone does it on some level, but she seems like an everyday woman, and everyday women relate to her.
Q: What did you discover or learn from writing your book?
A: It took about three years of my life, not counting the 20 I spent listening to her music.
When you embark on something like that, it’s kind of a gamble. I was really happy I liked her more at the end of it than when I started. I liked her enough to say that I thought she was one of the most important figures in music over the past 25 years, but by the end of it, I really saw her as peerless and admired on all sorts of levels.