Love & Life

Mary J. Blige has been dubbed the Queen of Hip-hop Soul, but she's really an old-fashioned blues singer wrapped in hip-hop beats and soul grooves. She knows that the blues are more than simply songs of woe — they're also about joy pulled from the jaws of despair, about hard-won victories in both life and love. They're about deploying wry, dry humor when shit really ain't funny.

So when the buzz around Blige's fifth studio album, Love and Life, suggested this would be the record on which she'd stop singing the blues, longtime fans knew better. Love teams Blige with Sean "Puffy" Combs, the Svengali behind her landmark 1992 debut, What's the 411?, but Blige hasn't tampered with her formula in any significant sense. She solidifies her standing as the hood Oprah, offering songs of faith and affirmation; her recurring theme is her journey toward a healthy sense of self-worth. Her lyrics are confessional, with scant use of metaphor or simile, and little of the creative risk-taking of poetry — the point with Blige is relating, not memorable tunes.

Love's greatest strength is the same as its predecessors': Blige's simmering vocal intensity and the way it slowly boils over into cathartic exultation. "When We" is vintage Blige: Working from a lyric blueprint comprised of rudimentary rhymes ("I got a man to love me down all night/I just hate it when we fuss and fight"), she employs a take-no-prisoners vocal, placed high in the mix to accentuate its power. A soulful, elastic chorus ("When weeee . . .") hooks you in; Blige's focus and intensity transform the trite theme, and the track soars. The closing number, "Ultimate Relationship (A.M.)," is just Blige and a guitar; it perfectly captures the throes of early-morning post-coital bliss.

Some songs are just bleak or, worse, mired in cliche: Tracks such as "Press On," about generic day-to-day depression and despair, and "Don't Go," about romantic disillusionment and struggle, simply regurgitate standard-issue Blige. Still, what makes her one of the finest soul singers of the last decade is here in spades. It's not about technical proficiency — though she's tremendously improved in that regard — and it's not about stellar songwriting (which would be the one thing that cemented her place among the greats she's so frequently compared to by die-hard fans). It's the raw honesty in her voice, the lack of artifice or posturing. You may not always love Blige's music, but you will feel her.

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