Mary J. Blige has the most bruised heart in contemporary pop and R&B — and the most resilient. The undisputed queen of hip-hop/R&B, Blige’s connection to fans is wired to her heart condition — the way her spiritual afflictions and hard-won triumphs play out in her voice. She sings in defiance of the world-weariness that dogs her; that battle is her “sound.” On Share My World, even Blige’s harshest critics will have to concede that she’s moved beyond sound to real singing. Listen to “Seven Days,” “Missing You” and the already-classic “Not Gon’ Cry” (also on the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack), and you hear Blige’s signature ache married to newfound technique. There’s shading, depth and control in her vocals now.
For the most part, anyway. On her too-faithful remake of Natalie Cole’s ’70s R&B smash “Our Love,” she sings with the barest acknowledgment of tone or pitch. The album’s real flaws, though, are twofold. There’s a creeping sickness that has thrown the hip-hop/R&B balance off, in favor of the latter; and almost all the songs are ballads of loves lost or pleaded for, often joined to subplots of trying to find self-worth in a heartless world. Only the pumping “Searching” and “Everything” — which cribs its hook from the Stylistics oldie “You Are Everything” — break the threatened monotony. Blige is no longer finding new aesthetic ground; she’s consolidating power by proving herself on more traditional R&B terms. Despite the hints that she’s becoming conservative, though, her soul’s unconquerable throb — at least for the moment — prevents her from sinking into artistic complacency.