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Blige raises credibility with powerful release

Observer Scene | Thursday, January 19, 2006

Mary J. Blige is music royalty. After 15 years and 10 albums, the multi-Grammy award-winning artist has established herself as the undisputed Queen of hip-hop soul and the preeminent soul singer of her generation. Blige’s trademark honesty and often pained vocal delivery has not only won her critical acclaim but also credibility.

Throughout her career, Mary J.’s soulful voice has transcended both lyric and genre to produce music that is an expression of her personal struggles. 2001’s “No More Drama,” the singer’s most successful album to date, was a manifestation of Blige’s decision to quit drinking and rid her life of a costly entourage.

Similarly, “The Breakthrough,” the R&B diva’s latest release, is a testimony to her newly discovered self-confidence. With Blige serving as both narrator and central figure, the 16 songs that comprise the album tell a triumphant love story. Each song is crafted to reveal a tiny fragment of the singer’s journey from an insecure girl, who used drugs to ease the pain of sexual molestation and parental abandonment, to a self-assured woman, who learns to love and accept herself despite a troubled past.

Sonically, although rooted in rough and rugged hip-hop beats, “The Breakthrough” is slick and sophisticated. Tracks produced by music legends Jam and Lewis, ’90s hit maker Rodney Jerkins, and newcomer Dave Young place instrumentation in the background so that Blige’s stirring voice can shine. Such a tactic would be a disastrous misstep for many of Blige’s pop-tart contemporaries, but for the diva it is a sound choice, for she possesses the ability to bring memories and old feelings to life by wrapping her voice around beats so that together they scream of love’s lost, coo of newfound romance and exhale the joy of finally learning to love one’s self.

The album opens with a fiery tribute to Blige’s husband, “No One Will Do.”

Accompanied by a sample of the O’Jay’s hit “I Swear I Love No One But You,” Blige sings “Seen many men in my time/but none of them compares to mine/I ain’t gotta knock on wood/To tell ya I got it so good/He’s everything that I need/And everything a man should be.” As she riffs, “nobody, nobody, nobody” it is clear Blige has found the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with.

Other standout tracks include the Will.I.Am produced “About You” on which Mary J. duets with the deceased Nina Simone. While pushing the acoustic beat along, Blige manages to not only remain on key but also complements Simone’s voice in a way that makes her seem as alive today as twenty years ago when her vocals were recorded. “I Found My Everything” puts to rest any questions surrounding Blige’s vocal range. With power reminiscent of early Aretha Franklin, the soul queen shakes the rafters proclaiming her personal discovery. “Father in You” finds Blige describing how the lack of a father figure in her life forced her to expect those qualities in her husband. It is a vulnerable and touching moment that underscores the singer’s ability to transform her painful story into beautiful therapy for listeners.

Still, “The Breakthrough” does contain some missteps including “MJB da MVP,” a syrupy retracing of Blige’s career that seems out of place with is tame lyrics and awkward production. On “Can’t Hide From Love,” Blige pushes her voice to its limits so that it sounds less inspiring and more weary.

Ultimately, “The Breakthrough” is a sincere work that allows listener’s to examine their lives through beautiful and meaningful music that contains the right amount of pain, joy and even drama. It is clear with this album that the Queen sits proudly upon her throne.