Mary J. Blige may not want anymore drama in her life, but unfortunately that translates to not much passion on her latest CD. Also new this week, a taste of what could have been if the Notorious B.I.G had lived.
Mary J. Blige, “The Breakthrough”Mary J. Blige can do punch-in-the-gut emotional pain and passion, but can she do love and happiness? More importantly, do we even want her to?
Blige continues her starry-eyed ascent from 2003’s “Love & Life” with 16 songs about love and relationships, with straightforward nods to her music-producer husband of two years. “So glad to have someone to hold me,” Blige wails in “About You,” featuring the Black Eye Peas’ Will.i.am, who co-wrote and co-produced the track.
One could do without cheesy lines such as “He’s my personal UPS / I’m sending him an S.O.S.” on “No One Will Do.” Same thing for an over-the-top reworking of U2’s perfectly adequate “One” — complete with Bono competing against Blige’s expert trills.
Blige co-wrote 11 tunes on “The Breakthrough,” and enlisted a truckload of talent in the form of producers Raphael Saadiq, Rodney Jerkins, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Duets with rappers Jay-Z, The Game and Brook fill the album with Blige’s usual smattering of hip-hop heavyweights.
Adept flourishes, from the groovy organ current of “Gonna Breakthrough” to the classic ’60s R&B of “I Found My Everything,” lend “The Breakthrough” a clean, fresh sound.
That, unfortunately, may not be enough.
Since creating the “hip-hop soul” genre with her 1992 debut album, Blige has endured addiction, suicidal tendencies, heartbreak and abuse. This has placed her in a catch-22 situation: To find enlightenment means moving past pain, and Blige’s pain was raw, inspiringly heartfelt and all-encompassing.
A few standouts on “The Breakthrough” harness this pain, reflecting on Blige’s troubled past instead of just praising her pain-free present. “MJB Da MVP” is a smooth roller-skating ride through her career, laid expertly over The Game’s “Hate It or Love It.” And the funk ode “Good Woman Down” digs beneath the surface of her depressed youth. “This is for my sisters, my troubled sisters,” Blige assures us.
Having moved from student of life to teacher, Blige wants no more drama. But the soul and panache of her sweeping voice — the modern-day equivalent of Aretha Franklin’s — is worthy of more passion than what’s contained on “The Breakthrough.” —Solvej Schou
Notorious B.I.G., “Duets”
This is the album of collaborations that should’ve happened if the late, great B.I.G. was still alive. His mentor Diddy, trying to restore some luster to his waning Bad Boy label, pieces together Biggie verses alongside the likes of Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliot and Bob Marley, to name a few.
Immediately, the first track drags you through the dungeon with a warrior-themed beat produced by Eminem, along with verses from the blond bandit, his protege Obie Trice and an unapologetic Diddy responding to critics who say he’s profiting off of Biggie’s legacy. Surprisingly, Obie outshines the two veterans, but the song lacks the impact of Biggie’s previous catalog.
Jay-Z reunites with his “Commission” cohort on the track “Whatchu Want.” Although Biggie’s two verses had never been released before, references like “slam Larry Johnson and his grand mama” date the material. Still, the verses are classic Biggie: clever and raunchy enough to make a jaded pimp blush.
Other highlights include tracks pairing Biggie with Big Pun (it would’ve been nice to have them both writing songs from scratch) plus Tupac and Nas on “Living In Pain.” The latter is the best track on the album — somehow, producer Just Blaze’s studio magic results in Tupac and Biggie ending their respective parts with the same “living in the house of pain” line. The haunting string ensemble and Mary J. Blige’s raspy cry for help make you feel as if you’re living in the same house.
The album has its share of disappointments. Why are Juelz Santana and Lil Wayne rapping on a track with Big Poppa nowhere to be found? And “Wake Up,” featuring the suicidal nu-metal group Korn, feels out of place — it’s hard to believe B.I.G. would have chosen to do this type of song.
Biggie created songs on the spot according to the feel of the sound coming from the speakers, developing a flow or cadence that set him apart from all others. Essentially, he was made for the beats. On this album, the beats are made for him and don’t capture the magic he used to create his classics.
Although the soundscape of the album reflects what’s going on today in the club and on the radio (which Biggie might have changed if he was around), all the verses sound dated and familiar. But his lyrics still hold the standard that most of today’s rappers can’t follow. The album does it’s best to give us Biggie alongside the best, but it falls short of the art that was Notorious B.I.G. —Greg Brown