At first it seems a bit strange: There's only one MC on Mary J. Blige's new album, Mary. On her first and third studio albums — the genre-creating What's the 411? and the merely stellar Share My World — she tapped a host of rhymers: Busta Rhymes, Grand Puba, Lil' Kim, Nas. On her second album, the emotional autobiography My Life, there was a Keith Murray cameo and a slew of Puffy-produced interpolations. This latest record is her most superstar-packed — she welcomes aboard Lauryn Hill (producing and singing backup, not rhyming), Sir Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Babyface, Eric Clapton and ex-boyfriend K-Ci Hailey of K-Ci and JoJo — but with the late excision of the stunning "Sincerity," featuring DMX and Nas, there's a conspicuous void.
Blige seems to have moved away from the Terry McMillan once-again-he's-breaking-my-heart mantra to, perhaps, an Oprah love-your-spirit ethos. She begins Mary with the lush Lauryn-produced "All That I Can Say," singing, "Loving you is wonderful / Something like a miracle." Two songs later, on "Beautiful Ones," she sings, "With your love, maybe in my life / You know, we can stop the rain," a direct answer to her classic theme song, "Everyday It Rains." Of course, there are songs about sadness, like the brilliant strength-in-pain anthem "The Love I Never Had" — where she blares, "I gotta wake up!" while a Jimmy Jam-and-Terry Lewis-produced live band funks behind her — as well as the deep ballad "Your Child" and the spectacular "Memories." But "Memories," with its hot Timbaland-inspired track and junglish drum line, doesn't match the sadness of which Mary speaks. The woman who concluded My Life singing, "All I really want is to be happy" seems to have found strength and happiness on the album's closer, a remake of the classic disco invocation "Let No Man Put Asunder." (You may remember the counterhook: "It's not over between you and me.")
Mary is moving away from the hip-hop-tinged, interpolation-heavy sound of her earlier albums into a sound that's even more soulful, singing over a large live band or alongside Eric Clapton's guitar or Elton John's piano. But she remains the queen of hip-hop soul. Where most singers open their throats and make pretty sounds, MCs strive to represent the hopes and fears of their audience, to embody the collective I. Where singers make you love their records, MCs make you love them. So, though she never rhymes, Mary is an MC. On second thought, it's perfect that the only MC on Mary's record be Mary.