We should have started to worry when she promised no more drama. Mary J. Blige’s fierce, throaty wail is suited to anguish; she wouldn’t be able to invest self-help clichés with genuine pathos if her lived-in bluesy swagger didn’t pack so much sadness. So what happens when she gets happy?
The Breakthrough is Blige’s first album since she got married in 2003, and nearly all of its tracks sound like odes to her new husband. On “Can’t Get Enough,” she sings, “You love me more than I love myself / No one can get me this confident.” She extends that love note on the vintage-soul showstopper “I Found My Everything,” howling over Raphael Saadiq’s crushed-velvet pianos and swelling strings. Even when she asks her lover to accept her flaws on “Baggage,” she’s just prepping for domestic bliss.
But too often, Blige’s voice doesn’t get the space it needs to cut loose with emotion. Producers like Rodney Jerkins pen her in with antiseptic session musician gloss and chilly electro clicks more appropriate for chirpy-voiced ingenues like Ciara. Because Blige never quite connects with the awkwardly programmed drums and cluttered synthetic arrangements of would-be club jams like “Can’t Hide From Luv” and “Gonna Breakthrough,” the songs’ chin-up aphorisms ring false. (One wonders what she could do with a full-album collaboration with a producer like Just Blaze –someone who understands both old-school soul’s glistening lilt and hip-hop’s bravado.)
Blige’s best moments come on left-field experiments like “MJB Da MVP,” where she steals the instrumental track from the Game’s “Hate It or Love It,” navigating her life’s dips and curves with effortless cool: “’91, I stepped in this game / After What’s the 411?, things ain’t been the same.” And when she duets with Bono on a cover of U2’s “One,” she sings with such grace and hunger that all he can do is get out of the way. When she hits the climactic “I can’t keep holding on to what you got / When all you got is hurt,” she nails the song’s visceral conflict between interdependence and self-preservation. And even though she’s married now, self-preservation still wins.
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