Mary J.: Mixing joy and pain to uneven effect

Music Review


Her hardness is what sold her from the start. And it continues to sell her. So on her new album, The Breakthrough, don't be fooled by the demure cover shot of Mary J. Blige. In the silver-toned picture, the Yonkers, N.Y., native seems peaceful. Ornate earrings kiss her shoulders. Her hair is parted and a thick, ropelike braid runs across the top of her head.

The look is regal, and it fits. After all, Blige has been known as the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" since the release of her 1992 debut, What's the 411? On The Breakthrough, her seventh album, which lands in stores today, she even brags about her hit-making status.

But beyond that, Blige wants us to know that she's much happier these days. She's married. The drug abuse, the nasty attitude, the toxic relationships -- all of that is behind her. But again, don't be fooled. It's never all good in Blige's 'hood. For every tune celebrating the joys of newfound love and the resilience of her spirit, there's a naked song of pain and yearning. Those are the type of cuts Blige does well, the wounded-soul numbers in which her rough-around-the-edges voice still manages to convey a concretelike strength.

Musically on the new CD, the singer-songwriter does what she has always done: melds the gospel fervor of classic soul with the synthetic beats of hip-hop. The formula, though, has worn a bit thin. Her last album, 2003's Love & Life, was boring, laden with rote grooves. The first half of Breakthrough, unfortunately, continues that trend, but Blige's vocals are fuller and more impassioned this time around.

Faceless tunes like the first single, "Be Without You," are listenable only because the hip-hop soul queen sounds emotionally invested. But the song isn't particularly memorable. "Gonna Breakthrough" is a run-of-the-mill club joint featuring Blige's rapping alter ego, whom she calls Brook.

The 16-cut album becomes more engaging about midway through with "Good Woman Down," a mid-tempo anthemlike number for downtrodden sisters looking for a way out of abusive relationships. In "Take Me as I Am," Blige acknowledges the drama of her past and urges her lover (and her fans) to accept her scars and all.

"Can't Hide From Luv," featuring Jay-Z, recalls the beat-heavy, feel-good vibe of such Blige classics as "Real Love" and "You Bring Me Joy." "MJB Da MVP," which uses the same beat from the Game's "Hate It or Love It," is a shamelessly vain track where the Grammy-winning vocalist boasts about her gold-and-platinum-studded career.

After that totally pointless cut, Blige delivers several stunning, creamy soul numbers that would have been at home on 1999's Mary, the singer's most assured and consistent album to date. With its gentle guitars and swooning layered vocals, "Can't Get Enough" updates the softer side of classic Curtis Mayfield. On the aching "Ain't Really Love," Blige's vocals swirl and burn as she kicks her coldhearted man to the curb. The song is reminiscent of her 1995 hit-the-road-jack anthem, "Not Gon' Cry."

"I Found My Everything," featuring the gifted Raphael Saadiq, marries the down-home churchiness of Candi Staton with the dramatic orchestral swells heard on Diana Ross' early solo records. The blissful song is magnificent, probably Blige's best performance committed to tape. But she returns to brutal emotional honesty on the self-penned "Father in You," in which the vocalist wails about the pain of not having her father around. The album ends with a sanctified version of U2's "One," a duet with Bono.

The Breakthrough is an uneven album. As a whole, it doesn't rank with Blige's best efforts, namely 1994's My Life and the aforementioned Mary. But the songs on the latter half of the new CD reveal the singer's tremendous growth as an interpreter. Underneath Blige's steeliness is a pearl of a soul singer.

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