It may seem like an overstatement, but Mary J. Blige could be the best female soul singer since Aretha Franklin. There's a smoothness to her voice that puts all her contemporaries and imitators to shame. Of course, it helps that she chooses to wrap that big, bad, beautiful voice of hers around some prime material. When Blige enters the bedroom, you can bet she's going to make you work for a payoff. Faith Evans and Destiny's Child should just give up, no questions asked. And since her dazzling 1992 debut What's the 411?, Blige has provided plenty of drama. She's an unabashed bitch with an ear for perfection and tolerance for no one willing to give less. Through the ups and downs of four albums, Blige has proved to be a strong woman, able to go up against the toughest hip-hoppers (like Method Man on the sublime 1995 duet "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By") and the simplest popsters (she made a creaky Elton John sample sound relatively fresh on "Deep Inside" from last year's solid Mary). Blige's greatest gift, however, is the way she makes even the most routine songs -- and there have been plenty of them in her oeuvre -- sound special. By working with top R&B producers (from Sean "Puffy" Combs and Mark Morales on her debut to Lauryn Hill and Babyface on Mary), she's managed to build a career where others have merely made a few hits.