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Something 'bout Mary J. 

Miss Blige keeps it real real

You gotta admit, Mary J. Blige has something special. Since her 1992 debut, What's the 411?, she's proven herself one of the most, if not the most, soulful singers of her era. You know it, because her music evokes a visceral response; it stirs something down deep, transmitted over radio waves. Not just a good song or a hot album -- something that turns Mary J. Blige's fans into Mary's soulmates. Her gift for connecting with her listeners is the kind of thing that can't be taught in music class. Maybe it was the environment in which she grew up -- the hardscrabble Yonkers, N.Y., projects dubbed "the Slow Bomb" -- that imbued her voice with such simultaneous pathos and joy. She sang in praise of God each Sunday at her Pentecostal church; and at home, along to the Stevie Wonder, Gap Band and First Choice records her mother had on the record player.

But, of course, lots of folks grow up going to church and listening to R&B music; hell, I did it, and you don't see me drawing fans into deep rivers of soul with the sound of my voice. There's more at work in what makes Mary, Mary.

First, her voice conveys the intangible -- pent-up, raging emotion -- through something tangible, by simply pushing air out of her lungs and through her larynx. This gift crops up only rarely, in Stevie, Tina or Marvin. Like them, Mary's voice is timeless, dripping with honey, sadness and passion. There's a rough-hewn, jagged edge that resonates deeper than in the tones of Whitney or Mariah, despite their considerable chops.

And like those past legends, Mary's voice recalls the hard-knock life. It's visible on her face, where a large tear-shaped scar drops down from her left eye (she's hinted in the past that it's a result of domestic abuse). But it's even clearer in her voice, each time she lustily growls the words "love" or "respect."

Indivisible from Mary's vocal power is her lack of professional polish, evident both in her tone and her phrasing. When Mary falls behind the beat or off the pitch, which she's been known to do, it's like she's trying to dam the flood of sounds and emotions pouring out. But instead of stopping the tape and recording it again until she gets it perfect, she just keeps on sangin', like she's still standing in the choir loft back in Yonkers. And ultimately, it's her imperfections as much as her strengths that but her in league with the soul greats of the past.

And that brings us to the most salient reason for Mary's enduring popularity: She keeps it real -- real real. She hides nothing, talking freely about her past problems, from abusive relationships to drug addiction. And at a time where Whitney and Mariah are practicing spin control, it's refreshing to see someone step up and admit the mistakes they've made in the past. As Mary says on her website, "Looking in the mirror nowadays is more than just looking at me. It's looking at the depths of me."

Mary's depths were never more visible, or more beautiful, than on last year's confessional tour de force, Mary. On "Deep Inside," she pleads over and over, "Deep inside I wish you could see/That I'm just plain ol' Mary." With "Your Child," she eschews the psychiatrist's couch for a curb in the 'hood, where she paints a picture of a woman confronted with her man's infidelity ("She wasn't disrespectful/In fact she's a 100 percent sure/How could I argue with her?/Holding a baby with eyes like yours"). And Mary goes full-circle by re-uniting with former beau, Jodeci's K-Ci Hailey, on "Not Lookin'," and later singing the gospel-tinged "Let No Man Put Asunder."

Mary has become a full month of Oprah shows rolled into one, fearlessly dealing with problems many would rather not discuss. As she says, "I don't give a damn what people think ... I'm not afraid. I got things in me that I learned when I was a little girl; now that I'm free, all of that is coming back. And I have so much more."

To steal a line from Stevie, Mary J. is building a castle of love. It's built for two -- her and the listener. And that's why we keep coming back for more.

Mary J. Blige performs at Chastain Park Amphitheater on Sat., July 1. Show time is 8 p.m.; tickets are $19-$45, available through Ticketmaster.

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