Mary J. Blige has made a career out of expressing the phases of her life. Ever since she released her solo debut What’s the 411? in 1992, her music has been infused with her experiences, and the results have been mostly positive. This sincerity has become her hallmark. Blige’s previous album, 2003’s Love and Life, found her in a nostalgic mood, looking back to her early-1990s sound for inspiration, with the incredibly annoying Puff Daddy (sorry, I mean Diddy) at the helm. It had its moments, but the album was mostly a bore. Two years later, The Breakthrough is a triumphant return to form and her best work since 1999’s Mary.
Now well into her thirties, The Breakthrough presents a Blige that is confident, secure and fully aware of the influence she has on her world. Gone are the songs of heartache and victimization, replaced by declarations of love, individuality and the awareness of her faults and shortcomings. The album’s title is fitting: She has indeed made a major breakthrough about who she is and, like the best of her previous work, has successfully illustrated her situation through her music.
Where Love and Life limped from song to song, The Breakthrough zips confidently through its sixteen tracks. The album’s first two-thirds is so well paced that the eleventh track seems to come around before you can catch your breath. The musical palette is a blend of contemporary Kanye Weststyle productions and classic mid-tempo soul. Sped-up soul filters through opener “No One Will Do” and the Dre & Vidalproduced “Can’t Hide From Luv” featuring Jay-Z. Both tracks are testaments to Kanye’s influence on popular music but are perfect fits for the hip-hop soul sound Blige helped engineer.
The Breakthrough is primarily upbeat, full of fun beats and funky dance numbers, but it remains a rather mature effort. She isn’t trying to compete with Ciara; rather, she leads with a sound that pays homage to 1960s and 1970s soul and early 1990s hip-hop. Blige channels Aretha Franklin on “I Found My Everything,” a beautiful gem that could have been plucked from the Queen of Soul’s catalog. Mary is just as comfortable wrapped in pounding beats, as evidenced by the bumping “Enough Cryin’ ” and “About You,” produced with frenetic joy by the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am.
But what truly makes The Breakthrough a joy is Blige’s confessional lyrics. The songs where she speaks frankly about her life are the most memorable and elevate the album above most contemporary soul. The haunting “Take Me As I Am” finds the singer completely at one with who she has become: “Yes she’s confident/ This is not the end/ Ask me how I know/ ‘Cause she is me/ So take me as I am/ Or nothing at all.” Both the up-tempo “Baggage” and the slow jam “Father in You” deal directly with her past, the first with the scars of past relationships and the second with her need for a father figure. “MJB Da MVP” is a clever reworking of the Game and 50 Cent’s hit “Hate It or Love It.” It retraces Blige’s musical history, explaining where she was mentally at the release of each of her albums. The bridge is an amalgamation of lines from the singer’s most memorable hits in a nod to all the fans who have stuck with her.
The only misstep stylistically is the closer, “One,” a collaboration with U2. The track’s pure pop sounds completely out of place with the soulful renditions and sincere love letters that come before it. Still, it doesn’t detract from The Breakthrough, Blige’s best album in years, one that works both musically and lyrically. From the sound of things, it doesn’t appear that Mary J. Blige’s reign as the queen is coming to an end anytime soon.
Geffen Records Web site