In 2001, Mary J. Blige was publicly riding high. Her personal demons were still privately fighting her, but she was fighting back. 2001’s No More Drama was a proclamation of that, as well as a return to form for Mary musically. 1999’s Mary was a departure, and found Mary exploring adult contemporary and more organic neo-soul sounds, as opposed to gritty hip hop beats that gained her the title of “Queen of Hip Hop Soul”. Though she found success in that avenue, it was time to get back to business.
Initially, Jay-Z and Lenny Kravitz were tapped for lead single “Rock Steady,” with a bridge that nods to the Aretha Franklin song of the same name. Unfortunately, due to a leak that found the song on the radio and mixtapes, the song was scrapped and Mary went back to the drawing board. A chopped up piece of the song can be heard here:
After some regrouping, Mary emerged with lead single “Family Affair”. The song showcases Mary continuing to progress the hip hop/soul sound she helped create nearly a decade prior. With signature production from Dr. Dre and bass-extraordinaire Mike Elizondo, Mary cruises over the beat and delivers one of the most iconic (and misheard) hooks of the decade:
Let’s get it crunk upon, have fun upon
Up in this dancery
We got ya open, now ya floatin’
So you gots to dance for me
Don’t need no hateration, holleratin’
In this dancery
Let’s get it percolatin’, while you’re waiting
So just dance for me
If “Family Affair” wasn’t enough of an indicator, the opening triumphant horns and hard-hitting bass drum of “LOVE” make it clear that No More Drama is a return to form. It’s one of her best openers to date. Mary even drops in a searing, rapid-fire rap verse mid-song where she proclaims that she’s not “the same old givin’ ‘way love for free” and she’s “focused now (to the point where) people sayin’ ‘Wow!’ in place of a frown on my face, a smile”. She’s showing her progress.
One of the most poignant and discussed album cuts is “PMS” where Mary flips Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” into a full blown blues testimonial about the woes of PMS. She holds back nothing, going as far as “the worst part about being a woman is PMS” and discusses feeling ugly, clothes not fitting, and lower back pain. It transforms a beautiful sample into the ultimate torch song.
Meanwhile, the album’s namesake is easily one of the most powerful Mary songs to date. Produced by legendary duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and driven by an unexpected sample from The Young & The Restless, it captures the essence of what makes people love Mary: her raw, unfiltered proclamation about her life and her struggles. Her performance of the song at the Grammy Awards the following year is regarded as one of the greatest Grammy performances ever, as she absolutely lets loose vocally, sending chills up and down spines and receiving a standing ovation as she damn near drives out the devil.
The album contains quite a few other gems. “Keep It Moving”, a Rockwilder production, further promotes them theme of distancing oneself from drama and living positively over a classic drum-bass combination with a touch of funky synths. “Destiny” on the other hand is arranged with lush strings and keys as Mary discusses her past, present, and the fate of her future. She initiates one hell of a bounce on “Crazy Games”, and lets out an addicting ascending chorus on “2U”.
Mary doesn’t take on her message alone. She recruits a few heavy hitters to help convey her message. Eve joins Mary for the retrospective “Where I’ve Been”. They speak to the kids who were once just like them, living in the ghetto, growing up in a difficult environment, and reinforcing that they’ve transcended that place and that it gets better. Pharrell blends his vocals with Mary’s on his slick Neptunes production “Steal Away”, while Missy Elliott provides production and some background vocals on the soul-sampling love song “Never Been”.
Just 5 months later, the album was re-released with a brand new album cover, and 3 new tracks. “Crazy Games”, “Keep It Moving”, and “Destiny” were replaced by “He Think I Don’t Know”, “Rainy Dayz (featuring Ja Rule)”, and a remix of “No More Drama” reuniting Mary with longtime collaborator Puff Daddy. “Dance For Me” was also updated to include a verse from Common.
“He Think I Don’t Know” is a perfect fit for the album, and would become Mary’s first Grammy-winning song at the 2003 Grammy Awards. Mary cuts into a cheating lover who thinks he’s pulling the wool over her eyes. She marinates over his shady behavior: extensive unsuccessful trips to the store, his expectation of more trust, assumption of her naivety, and her own experience of (unbeknownst to him) catching him in the act.
“Rainy Dayz” of course went on to become one of the biggest R&B songs of 2002, just as “Family Affair” had done in 2001. Ja Rule was a hot commodity at the time, fresh off his crossover success collaborating with Jennifer Lopez on “I’m Real”. The Irv Gotti-produced track was initially meant for TLC (as a follow up to “Waterfalls”), but instead ended up in Mary’s hands, and turned it into another hit. The song even caught the ear of Whitney Houston, who showed up to perform the song with Mary at the 2002 VH1 Divas Las Vegas show.
15 years later, No More Drama continues to shine amongst Mary J Blige’s catalog. Like the closing track “Testimony” the album serves as a declaration of Mary’s continued growth and struggles while striving for improvement, making mistakes, and still acknowledging the woman she was, and the woman she continues to become. It is also a brilliant and crucial chapter in the story of Mary J. Blige.
Dig into No More Drama and the re-release below: