Rihanna and Mary J. Blige represent ends of R&B spectrum

OPINION - Two very big pop stars released albums this week, and while tradition would have had most of us pitting one album against the other, these two couldn't be more different...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Two very big pop stars released albums this week, and while tradition would have had most of us pitting one album against the other, these two couldn’t be more different — Rihanna’s Talk That Talk and Mary J. Blige’s My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act I).

Is it possible to be both a Rihanna and Mary J fan? Possibly, but perhaps not plausibly. These artists represent two ends of the R&B spectrum, Mary J. firmly established as damn near the definition, the “Queen of Hip Hop Soul,” the one who sang all the hooks of your favorite hip hop tracks of the 90s.

And then you have Rihanna — so pop, so alternative, so dance rock top 40, she’s kind of beyond the R&B category.

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But both women are artists known to exorcise their demons on wax — singing about heartbreak, lost lovers, women scorned, women empowered. These universal themes help project their talents, make them the icons of women, black and otherwise, worldwide.

Mary J.’s very wordy My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act I) finds the R&B diva at an impasse of sorts — here is a woman who has had a nearly 20 year career, nine Grammys, eight multi-platinum albums. She’s a well-respected elder — but that’s the catch, she’s an elder. Something that may be a tough pill to swallow when some of the world’s biggest pop stars barely are old enough for a driver’s license.

So this latest effort capitalizes on the success of her 1994 album My Life, a dark album that revealed Mary J.’s struggle with drugs, alcohol, and depression.

“It’s not a competitor. It’s a sequel. In a extension of how far we’ve come,” she tells Diddy on the intro track to the album. What follows is classic Mary J. fare, heartfelt ballads, an appearance by her rapping alter-ego Brook Lynn, and even a cover of Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody.” It’s an album that stay’s true to Mary’s style, and will appeal to her fans seeking the emotional Mary of the 1990s.

Back then, Mary’s warbling defined a generation, women looking to find their own in the male-dominated hip-hop scene. Mary was able to be amongst the boys without compromising her sense of self and femininity, with oversized jerseys and combat boots.

Similarly, Rihanna asserts her sense of self through her sexuality and anger, a woman who’s said more than once that she’s into sadomasochism. Surprisingly, Talk That Talk finds the singer in a lighter place — perhaps reconciled with her Chris Brown past and ready to love again, as referenced by the many love-themed tracks “We Found Love,” “Drunk on Love,” and “We All Want Love.”

Though Rihanna does make sure to flaunt her raunchiness (the somewhat eye-roll-inducing “Cockiness (Love It)”) it’s nice to see her getting out of a dark place. On the Mary J. album experience timeline this would be her “Share My World” moment, an album in which Blige also signed off on her darkly-themed music and attempted a more upbeat, happier sound.

The great thing about both Mary and Rihanna is that they show the full spectrum of R&B, the diversity that music embraces, allowing two seemingly different women to express the same ideas in unique ways. Young women are drawn to Rihanna’s fierce independence, while Mary J. appeals to an older emotionally assertive crowd.

On the surface they don’t have a lot in common, but peeling back the layers you begin to see that both are two artists who put their heart into their music, constantly redefining R&B, all for the sake of self-expression.