Against the Whitneys and Britneys, the Brandys and Beyoncés, the Mariahs and Monicas, the Myas and Ashantis, Mary J. Blige is a champion, even if she's not always recognized as such. While she has the pipes and the aura of a pop diva, Mary actually shares some of the deep soul and hard funk sensibilities of Erykah Badu, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Tweet. So Mary has her own niche between those two groups--old soul music dressed up in hip-hop beats and presented as pop music.
Her sixth studio disc, Love & Life, is a very good record once it gets past the slick radio singles. In fact, the record proves that for all his talent as a producer, P. Diddy's taste for sampling sometimes clogs his immaculate ears. While Diddy seems to be interested in making My Life--her breakout record--again, Blige's singing and lyrics are offering a new maturity and insight. On tracks such as "Willing and Waiting," "Feel Like Making Love" and "It's a Wrap"--where the production has been reined in--Mary's voice does the most pleasing music-making. But even against Diddy's overproduction on tracks such as "Ooh!" and "Don't Go," Mary J.'s voice radiates an energy that overwhelms the ticks, pings, whistles and pounding drum lines.
The best thing Blige did for her career (and the thing she'll definitely do after this disc) was to break with Diddy after My Life. The distance let Mary become an artist apart from the Bad Boy label. In the past seven years Blige has learned to write better songs and has let other producers showcase her talents in various, beautiful ways. In fact, the best cut on the new disc is the Dr. Dre-produced joint "Not Today." A nasty beat, a funky bass line, a tight Eve rhyme in the middle of the track--and plenty of room for Blige to sing lusciously about her freedom and bad love. Diddy could learn something from Dre. But to his credit, Diddy does do one really smart thing in building the first single "Love @ 1st Sight." Mary tells her story of being thunderstruck by a handsome brown-eyed man over a sample of A Tribe Called Quest's "Hot Sex (on a Platter)." The song is a cliché, but the sample helps push to the truth of her reaction: What she's really seeing, according to the riff, is an invitation to knock boots. Nice.
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As good as Love & Life is, it shows Blige running in place--it's like chapter two of 2001's No More Drama. And neither of these discs really measures up to 1999's dynamic Mary. But I can't help loving her on this new record; at a time when all the songs on "urban radio" are really repeated hooks sung over jacked beats, it is great to listen to a grown-ass woman singing fully developed songs about her crazy troubles, the aftermath of those troubles and the hope for a better time in love.