There’s Something About Mary

The Queen of hip hop soul uplifts herself for the best in years

Mary J. Blige

“The Breakthrough”

Geffen Records

A career heavy on heartache, drama, and ups and downs of all stripes have brought Mary J. Blige to “The Breakthrough,” easily her best album in a decade. Whether smooth and expressive, as on the 1997 album “Share my World,” or emotional and aggressive as on 2001’s “No More Drama,” Blige has always been the soulful sister of the hip hop world, and from the opening notes of her new album she lets you know that 14 years of personal trials and tribulations have only made her music richer. Heartbreak and true love are what she sings about here, with a sound that taps into the harmonies of ‘60s era girl bands.

“The Breakthrough” opens with a tinny, old-radio intro for “No One Will Do,” the first and possibly best cut on a truly stellar 14-song recording.

Blige has always found success in merging the infectious bass beats of hip hop with the grounding piano of soul music, using her throaty, expressive voice to bridge the gap. The “Queen of hip hop soul” also gets a lot of mileage on “The Breakthrough” by blending this signature sound with deep gospel and expressive crooning. The synergy is perfect, especially on “I Found My Everything,” which traces its roots straight back to Aretha Franklin.

The first four tracks line up like they’re just waiting for radio play. In “Enough Cryin’” a violin break classes up the tale of a controlling man who can’t commit to marriage, and Blige lays the rap down as her alter-ego Brook, singing, “Ice me, wife me, you ain’t gonna have me… it’s time I do something for me.”

And although the album was released just a few weeks ago, local hip hop stations have put the sizzling hot track “Be Without You” into heavy rotation. During Christmas week, her album sold 727,000 units, making it the best opening week for a solo R&B female artist in the Nielsen SoundScan era, and Blige’s third album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

With “The Breakthrough,” Mary J. also cements her reputation for teaming up with male vocalists to create unbelievably resonant harmonies. On the track “About You,” the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am jumps into the mix with his spring-loaded sound effects as Blige sardonically sings, “You’re all I never wanted.” She duos with Jay-Z, Dave Young, and Bono in the final track, a cover of U2’s classic hit, “One.” But as in her 2000 performance with Elton John in, “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,” Blige’s smoky voice and slightly off-kilter pacing transforms Bono’s classic rallying cry into a broken-hearted love song.

On “MJB Da MVP,” Blige sings, “I’m the Soul Hip Hop Queen, I ain’t going nowhere, but you already know me.”

Realizing her own power may prove to be Blige’s biggest breakthrough yet.

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