Mary J. Blige
ee, here’s the thing: Mary’s still the queen, y’all. Don’t front. Like Aretha in the late ‘70s, yeah, she’s had a few down years. But that doesn’t mean she abdicated or some shit. Aretha is, forever (even now), the Queen of Soul; Mary’s forever the Queen of Hip Hop Soul. The latter may be a term Diddy created back in the day for marketing purposes (remember, he was the marketer behind both Mary and Jodeci back in ’91, working for Andre Harrell at Uptown records and killin’ it), but it stuck, ‘cause it fit. ‘Cause it was right. ‘Cause it’s true. And now—and forever—it means, simply, MJB. Mary J. Blige.
Last summer—summer of ’05, I mean—Mary dropped a mixtape record that actually ended up all over the radio, “MJB Da MVP,” wherein the Queen rapped and sang over top of the Game & 50 Cent’s white-hot “Hate It Or Love It,” looking back at her life, her life, her life, her life in the sunshine, in just over 4:00. She kept 50’s chorus verse, and even got the Game to drop his own (new) verse. Sadly, that verse is missing from the version on Mary’s new album The Breakthrough, but its intent is happily intact. When it comes to R&B, MJB is “Da MVP”—I mean, who else? Alicia Keys? Talent like crazy, but two albums plus an Unplugged doesn’t cut it, not yet. Mariah? She’s pop-R&B, not straight-up soul like Mary. And really, can you name me even one other woman on Mary’s level? Naw, you know you can’t.
The Breakthrough is easily Blige’s finest full-length since ‘99’s Mary. The latter featured among its tracks a duet with Aretha herself, the searing “Don’t Waste Your Time,” not a handing-over-of-the-torch so much as a summit between two Queens. MJB’s back, suckas. Who stars in her new album’s first video, for the single “Be Without You”? Try the man of 2005—at least film-wise—Terrence Howard. He doesn’t have to show up in a BET-bait video, but he’s in there because when the Queen calls, you do what she asks (gracefully, always gracefully now that she’s in a good place in her life, and she’s sure as hell earned it). Terrence knows that being asked to star in a Mary J. Blige video isn’t just a privilege; it’s a damn honor.
As it happens, “Be Without You” is also a slammer of a single, a midtempo love song that gets all the hands in the air (lighters-cum-cell phones, too). The Voice has never been the issue—it’s truly an instrument of wonder—but Mary sounds especially great on The Breakthrough, like she’s on some electric relaxation. The beats are here like you want ‘em, too, as the boomin’ opener “No One Will Do” (with a sweet O’Jays sample) proves.
Like she often does, Mary drops a chain of great ballads at the album’s end, here starting with “Ain’t Really Love.” It’s followed by the Raphael Saadiq-featuring “I Found My Everything,” which is a little twist for MJB, like an unearthed unreleased Aretha killer. Showing and proving again, damn—any haters should be quieted by this one. “Father In You” is a deep, gorgeous tearjerker, and “Alone” comes off like the glory days of Blackstreet (good thing, I mean—think of “Before I Let You Go”), featuring new jack Dave Young, who I’d like to hear more from based on this.
The Breakthrough closes with a potentially risky move from the Queen: a duet with U2 on their forever classic “One” (which she perfectly performed with them on NBC’s Hurricane Katrina telethon in September). “One” has always kinda been a gospel song anyway, so the choice makes sense—but performing it with Ireland’s Beatles? Bono and Mary’s voices mix better than you might think, though (and it’s not the first time they’ve sung together—check Kirk Franklin’s “Lean On Me”), and it just works beyond reason. You can’t say that of everything in the Mary J. Blige catalog, but you can say it about nearly everything on The Breakthrough. The stock reviewer’s phrase for this is “a stellar return to form,” and you’d best bet it applies here.