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
March, the University of Texas Press published the
Kansas City writerís 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.
What prompted you to write this book?
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.
in general and black artists very often arenít 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.
When and how did you become interested in her music?
My first reaction to her wasnít 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 Jacksonís "Control," black
women mixing hip-hop and soul and R&B in the late
í80s and early í90s who took a larger role on the
radio than before. I was really into that: Salt-N-Pepa,
TLC, Jody Watley, Pebbles and others.
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 Daddyís
name lead me to believe she was a producerís pawn.
What changed your mind?
I didnít really get into it at all until "My
Life" (1994). What really caught me was that Rose
Royce cover, "Iím Goiní Down," which was
really moving and powerful and hit me like great soul
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 sheíd grown into the
role she was supposed to be playing.
didnít 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, "Youíre All I Need,"
that was very symbolic of what she represented at that
moment: an R&B singer who could be embraced by rap.
Talk about her voice, which is so elemental to her
I think itís 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.
knows how to make people feel things with her voice. Itís
very raw and powerful, and over the years she has
figured out how to refine it. I think sheís a much
better singer today than she has ever been.
What is her place in music today?
I think of her in terms of a certain movement I think is
important in terms of pop music history: the late í80s
to early í90s, when women were like 25 percent of the
hit singles. Itís never been that high again.
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.
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, thatís sort of a
Springsteen comparison: What do you do once youíre no
longer a rebel, when now youíre the grownup? I think
of only a handful of artists that way.
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.
What did you discover or learn from writing your book?
It took about three years of my life, not counting the
20 I spent listening to her music.
you embark on something like that, itís 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
finds ways to keep evolving. Sheís not just a
survivor, sheís someone who has never stopped growing.