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"The Breakthrough": Mary J Blige
by michael heyliger
Mary J. Blige has always been a soul artist
with hip-hop sensibilities.
However, I don't think anyone saw the surly
girl from Yonkers' transformation into
confident, mature woman coming when she
was slugging interviewers and receiving
Soul Train Awards in unflattering ghetto
gear. In the near-15 years since her arrival
on the scene, she's become our premiere
female soul vocalist, and in the process has shaken off many of
the demons that have haunted her.

"The Breakthrough", her seventh studio album and tenth overall, still
finds her straddling the line between hip-hop savvy and classic soul
elements, but it succeeds in it's mission much more strongly than her
mediocre last two albums, "Love & Life" and "No More Drama". This
has to do with several things-increased vocal skill, better songwriting,
and Mary's continued positive outlook, this time in light of her recent
marriage to her manager, Kendu Isaacs.

Her newfound love mainfests itself lyrically on several tracks, the
best of them being "I Found My Everything", featuring vocals and
production by Raphael Saadiq. This song sounds like a long-lost
Aretha B-side, with a riveting vocal performance that highlights Blige's
increasing vocal similarity to the Queen Of Soul. Other highlights in
this vein include the passionate "Be Without You" and the triumphant
"Can't Hide From Luv", which features vocal ad-libs from Jay-Z, one of
a tightly selected group of guest artists-a bit of a change from
previous albums when cameos seemed to litter every other songs.

Amidst all of this happiness, if you think Mary forgot her core
audience of struggling females, you're dead wrong. There's the
woman-power anthem "Good Woman Down", as well as the
pissed-off club banger "Enough Cryin'". Songs like this prove that
Mary can take even the most basic formula of how to make a good
hip-hop/R&B record and win with it, as her vocal presence completely
overshadows Rodney Jerkins' production-by-numbers.

Overall, "Breakthrough" is easily Blige's most consistent album since
her third, "Share My World". She has definitely staked her claim as
her generation's most gifted vocalist, a fact that's highlighted on the
album's last track, a cover of Irish rockers U2's classic "One". Joined
by Bono and company, she delivers a spine-tingling version of what I
have always thought to be one of the most emotional songs ever
written. Over the course of her last couple of albums, Mary has
occasionally seemed lost in banal or trendy (or both) songwriting and
production. "The Breakthrough" finds her crashing through all of
those barriers confidently and creating a consistently satisfying,
passionately performed album.

Visit Mary's website at:
www.mjblige.com