In the case of Love & Life - Blige's first production collaboration with P. Diddy in close to a decade - the answer is basically the same as on every Blige record. As always, she's obsessed with the concept of romantic fulfillment, but whereas she used to long for it, now she savors it, worries about it and struggles to protect it. "Don't Go" and "When We" offer realistic, warts-and-all depictions of relationships, with Blige accepting the notion that conflict is simply part of the equation. And on "Let Me Be The 1," a haunting funk drone (with a cameo from 50 Cent), she earns the title of the "queen of hip-hop/soul", with a vocal tour de force that alternates between gritty rasp and smooth seduction.
Even in her angst-ridden early days, Blige always used her music as therapy, flaunting her personal flaws like war medals. Now, her homilies tend to be more life-affirming, as in this soliloquy from "Free (interlude)": "Life is a journey, and in this journey, I'm learning to love me, so I can be free. You feel me?"
Even if you don't feel such chicken-soup-for-the soul-singer advice, Blige is locked into such a rock-solid groove on Love & Life, she makes long-term commitment sound ineffably sexy. She's like Van Morrison on His Band and the Street Choir or Tupelo Honey, coming out of her shell and drawing creative energy from the possibility of happiness. •