Mary J. Blige recently performed her new single, “I Am,” on the finale of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, surrounded by dancers costumed in some of her signature looks from the past 17 years. From the ‘round the way girl style of What’s the 411?, the diva in jeans and a white wife-beater from My Life, to the runway-ready looks of The Breakthrough and Growing Pains, the dancers bookended Blige, who demonstrated just why she continues to hold the title of Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Embracing the past with a hopeful eye to the future, and overcoming the drama in her life, has been a consistent theme throughout Blige’s discography of the aughts.
A quick scan of the track listing of her ninth release, Stronger With Each Tear (Matriarch/Geffen), might lead you to believe Blige has left all that drama behind and is finally in a place to be happy. This will likely be a polarizing record among fans of her adult contemporary leanings, as the personal turmoil hits the floor so goes with it the heartbreaking ballads that have been her trademark. In their place is a reinvigorated Blige who is ready to let go and have some fun.
The record kicks off with the understated “Tonight,” which is begging to be remixed for the dance floor. Followed by “The One,” — which may have you asking yourself, where have I heard this before; it was used in a commercial campaign in early 2009? — a glitchy, over-processed track featuring Lil Wayne protégé Drake. Hot off his “Best I Ever Had,” Drake was only six when Mary released What’s the 411?, and somehow we’re supposed to think he’s able to kick it to her; it’s a stretch, but it works. By the time “Said and Done” rolls around, the record still sounds more like a mixtape than a cohesive album; looking past that, Blige lays in the cut and delivers a strong vocal with little more than the beat to accompany her.
Songsmith Ne-Yo’s contribution, “Good Love,” brings it back to familiar territory with Earth, Wind & Fire-worthy horn blasts and a celebratory verse courtesy of T.I. Outside of some signature vocal harmonies, this is a departure from Ne-Yo’s usual style. The same cannot be said of “I Feel Good,” which has Ne-Yo written all over it; where “Good Love” sounds like Blige, “I Feel Good” feels like Blige covering Ne-Yo. The tune works in spite of this and has great potential as a single.
The record isn’t all fun, though — there are a few mid-tempo moments in the way of “Each Tear,” “In the Morning” and “We Got Hood Love,” featuring Trey Songz, which made me recall the superior “Ifuleave,” a track Blige did with Musiq in 2008. The true standout among the album’s slower tracks is “Color,” co-written and produced by Raphael Saadiq for the film Precious; the song finds Mary channeling, and perhaps even surpassing Aretha Franklin at her peak. Saadiq infuses his classic soul sensibilities and the paring is a match made in heaven.
When Blige is not fighting the techniques favored by contemporary R&B producers — because really, does Mary J. Blige need Auto-Tune? — this record is just right for a soundtrack to a night out.
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