Mary J. Blige's drug problems, abusive relationships, and bad business decisions have all been well documented in the press; her rise, fall, and redemption fit so neatly into the media paradigm that it was hardly surprising to see her featured on VH1's Behind the Music last fall. But I'd rather hear the story from her, and with No More Drama (MCA) the greatest and most enduring soul singer of the hip-hop era asserts a new independence and pledges to walk away from destructive influences. "Leave all that BS outside," she sings on the strutting, infectious "Family Affair," produced by Dr. Dre. "We're gonna celebrate all night / Let's have fun tonight, no fights / Turn that trash back playa." It's her most beat-heavy album in years, in keeping with the sense of triumph, though her demons lurk nearby: on "No More Drama," melodramatically constructed from the key piano riff of the theme from The Young and the Restless, Blige testifies, "So tired, tired of this drama / No more, no more / I wanna be free." On the sly "PMS," a wholesale swipe of Al Green's "Simply Beautiful," she demands her premenstrual space, while the zigzagging melody of "Where I've Been" draws her through a dire childhood toward faith in herself, an example to "all the youth in the world that think nobody understands." Blige mostly avoids the vocal histrionics of her previous work, which highlights her malleable tone and rhythmic invention. This will be her first show in town since the record's release last August, but don't expect to see any genuine emotional cracks: Blige is a meticulous devotee of showbiz artifice. Avant opens. Friday and Saturday, February 15 and 16, 8 PM, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress; 312-431-2355 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Len.