Mary J. Blige, 'Stronger with Each Tear' (Matriarch/Geffen)

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by Mikael Wood

Mary J. Blige has spent the past decade effecting a slow transformation from R&B's queen of pain to the closest thing the genre counts to Oprah Winfrey (not counting Robin Thicke, that is). Judging by the titles on Blige's latest, that transformation is almost complete: "Good Love," "I Feel Good," "I Love U (Yes I Du)." It's hard to believe this is the same woman who once felt the need to announce she was done with drama.

Yet despite the conviction that those track names suggest -- and despite solid writing and production contributions from A-listers such as Ne-Yo, Polow da Don, and Bryan-Michael Cox -- Stronger with Each Tear feels less vital than 2005's terrific The Breakthrough or 2007's Growing Pains, the latter of which climaxed with the delirious '80s-funk jam "Just Fine."

The problem isn't that the pearls of self-affirmation here ("Each tear brings you closer to your dream," goes one) don't compare to the raw intensity of her early work; as her smash "Be Without You" proved, Blige can describe fulfillment as vividly as she can emptiness. Rather, it's that they don't compare to the hard-won ebullience of her recent work. The result is minor Mary -- strong by many standards, a bit tepid by hers.

WATCH: Mary J. Blige, "I Am"

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