It is always a challenge facing musicians as they grow older and begin to take on the status of a heritage act: How to stay musically relevant while still retaining credibility? Mary J Blige, who turned 40 this year, does not have to convince anyone of her talents and her legacy is assured but, after a career spanning 20 years, her later albums have often been a case of diminishing returns and have been serviceable at best. It is a welcome relief then that My Life II… is a wonderfully assured collection of classy RnB pop that can justifiably rank amongst her best work.
My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1) is touted as a sequel to 1994’s My Life album and, indeed, the album begins with an opening skit featuring Blige telephoning My Life producer P Diddy and asking him for his permission to record a sequel. My Life II… sees Blige in reflective mood; it is both a response to the past and a vision for the future. The sound is classic Mary J Blige with that stunning voice very much to the fore. There is a refreshing simplicity to the sound, a mix of smooth RnB, straight ahead hip hop and sumptuous ballads. It would be incredibly easy for Blige to feel the need to drastically update and reinvent her sound to compete with the likes of Rihanna et al but thankfully there is no sign of Red One or the dreaded David Guetta on this record.
Despite it sounding like it could easily have came from the mid ’90s, it stands strangely unique amid the electronic dance influenced RnB that seems to be de rigueur in 2011. Make no mistake the album is not just a retrogressive retread though, there is more than enough contemporary sounds from producers such as Danja and Rico Love to make the album a winning combination between the old and the new.
The album begins with a series of upbeat songs and there is a lovely feeling of joyful exuberance to Midnight Drive and Feel Inside. The feisty orchestral swing of first single 25/8 is a particular highlight. There is a great looseness to Blige’s voice, a voice that has always sounded incredibly natural and pure and, in fact, she has never sounded better than on this record.
Like all RnB albums there is a long guest list, however, while the credits look impressive on paper, the quality of their input is distinctly variable. Nas offers a typically strident rap to Feel Inside and Love A Woman, featuring Beyoncé, is a classy duet between two of contemporary RnB’s most striking voices. On the other hand Drake offers a rather forgettable verse to the perfectly titled Mr Wrong and Busta Rhymes is an unnecessary addition to the otherwise vibrant Next Level.
The album’s only real serious misfire, other than some ill judged guest appearances, is an uninspired faithful cover of Chaka Khan’s Aint Nobody. It adds nothing to the original and you get the feeling that it is there just to pad out an already bulging track list.
Befitting the reflective nature of the album the best moments here are the beautifully judged ballads that mostly fill its second half. They are never grandiose or overblown and Blige’s perfectly poised vocals are genuinely affecting. The aching acoustic sigh of Need Someone is particularly tender. Blige is a singer with a real emotionally affecting story to tell and her life, which has featured bouts of drug addiction, alcoholism and depression, and her story really come across in these songs.
Most artists who have enjoyed a long and successful career are content simply to rest on past glories and creatively stagnate. That is why My Life II… is such an impressive collection; it manages to avoid the pitfalls of creative redundancy and combines a classic sound with a contemporary twist to perfect effect. Perhaps for Mary J Blige this act of looking back has offered her a newly energised path for the future.