It’s always been tempting to view Mary J. Blige as the Aretha Franklin of the hip-hop era. For all her raspy vocal power, Blige can’t match Franklin’s technical mastery or her musical range (we’ll probably never see Blige singing opera at the Grammys). On the other hand, Franklin’s seemingly limitless gifts occasionally have encouraged her to venture into questionable territory (the show tunes of her Columbia years; the disco-diva pandering of the late ’70s), while Blige seems incapable of a false moment.
For years, Blige equated her soulfulness with a tortured existence, and teetered on the edge of self-destruction. She finally conquered those impulses and celebrated her new lease on life with the bold-print declarations of 2001’s No More Drama. Its follow-up, Love & Life, represented a contented holding pattern: pleasant but predictable. It’s with The Breakthrough, however, that things really get interesting for the mature, enlightened Blige.
No longer in the honeymoon glow of new love, but now spiritually centered enough to cope with emotional upheaval, Blige approaches her pain with a new level of self-awareness on The Breakthrough. The album’s pivotal track, “Baggage,” finds her confessing to a lover about the toll of her turbulent past: “Heartache and pain/I just can’t do it again/so I look for the worst and brace myself for the hurt.”
| The Breakthrough |
Mary J. Blige
Around the fulcrum of this admission, Blige unleashes a torrent of romantic frustration and anger, explores her own pent-up daddy issues, and determines that, even with all the problems, she doesn’t want to pull the plug on her relationship. Propelled by some of the tightest beats and most fluid textures of her career, Blige hits new heights of soulfulness. Even the record’s unlikeliest track, a collaboration with U2 on their song “One,” soars on the strength of Blige’s goosebump-inducing delivery. It’s a testament to her vocal greatness that by the end of a song loaded with Bono-specific lyrics (“Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head”), Blige will convince you that the song was written just for her. •