There's no denying the commercial legs or fan appeal of Mary J. Blige's late-2005 The Breakthrough. In the wake of 2003's Diddy dud Love & Life and the teeth of an industrywide slump, its triple-platinum domestic sales — not to mention the sixteen-month stay of "Be Without You" on the R&B chart — are very nearly miraculous. So it's a little glossy, a little soft, a little emotional. A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, especially a happily married girl who wants to share the emotional wealth.
A mere two years later, with a best-of in between, Blige is back. Growing Pains is the eighth studio album of her fifteen-year career, and it doesn't stand pat. Where The Breakthrough harnessed an astonishing thirteen producers or teams over its sixteen tracks, as of press time these require, give or take a few collaborators, only nine. Moreover, Blige has rehired just two of the last record's music providers: Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, responsible for the over-the-top "Father in You" then and the softly revealing "Hurt Again" now, and "Be Without You"'s Bryan-Michael Cox, who we can blame for the anodyne self-help number "Stay Down." Newly enlisted producers include "Umbrella"-wielding Tricky Stewart, Pharrell Williams bearing a "Good Times" bass line, the Norwegian StarGate combine that gave us Ne-Yo's "So Sick," Ne-Yo associate Neff-U and Ne-Yo himself.
These changes don't signal any fundamental evolution, however. Take the album titles literally — after her Diddy retro tanked, the last album embodied Blige's "breakthrough" from "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" to best-selling R&B diva, while this one reflects her "growing pains" within her freely chosen new self-definition. Right, both titles also reference her personal life. But since her personal life, musically transubstantiated, is the subject of her songs, why can't the titles have a double function? Ultimately, that's the point.
One welcome shift is retro — some hip-hop soul. Compared to Will.i.am's mild commentary and Jay-Z's hype-man icing on The Breakthrough, the cameos by Busta Rhymes on the rousing sisterhood anthem "Work That" and Ludacris on the lascivious body-pride come-on "Grown Woman" are takeover moves, and not only that — the songs have the stuff to fight back. These loud, assertive tracks remind us just how tough this sweet-voiced diva can be, and add muscle to, for instance, the silly gangsta metaphor underlying the Usher duet "Shake Down": "I'm robbin' you for your love." More auspiciously, they beef up two declarations of female pride composed in part by the Dream, who wrote "Umbrella." "I work this relationship nine to five," Blige tells the tomcatting dog of "Nowhere Fast." "Stick around till I get a return on my investment." On the confessional "Roses," she tells her man he'd better "suck it up" and understand her bad mood. Both times Stewart's tricks — softened by bubbly electro beats on the first song, ominously bass-y on the second — undercut the soap opera.
Baring her weaknesses, "Roses" is a typical move for Blige, who's always made a specialty of acting the round-the-way girl. When she got married in 2003, she invited not a single celeb to her wedding, and always she keeps that faith. "Just like you," "Work in Progress" tells her fans, "sometimes I get depressed." But the tone of her confessions has changed with her music. Growing Pains is an edgier record than The Breakthrough, but Blige has definitely lost or just outgrown the brassy urgency of her twenties. Then, her confessions had the feel of painful late-night outbursts; these days, they sound more like she's had a lot of therapy. It would be easy to make fun of this, but why? How gratifying it is to see pop lucre propel a project kid like Mary J. Blige into the upper reaches of the upper-middle class rather than turn her into a lost grotesque. If her new music still sometimes seems too comfy for comfort, give her credit for trying to grow into it and believing she can keep on going.