The problem for Mary J Blige in 2010 isn’t to do with vocal ability; she passed that test a while back. It has more to do with how those vocals are treated. In a pop and R&B world riddled with Auto-Tune disease, it’s difficult to know where Blige’s earthy, soulful voice can fit in. Somewhat surprisingly, Stronger With Each Tear finds her dabbling in some vocal effects to fit the zeitgeist. But, as ever, she sounds more comfortable when left to emote without sounding like a Chipmunk.
Things start horrendously, however, with a woeful cover of Led Zeppelin‘s Whole Lotta Love (one of two Zeppelin covers on the album). Produced by ‘man of the moment’ RedOne (see also Lady GaGa‘s Bad Romance), it sounds not unlike those musically insipid cover versions they have to play in card shops because they can’t afford to license the real tracks. Blige gives it her best tilt, but even she can’t mask the embarrassment. One thing is becoming abundantly clear: RedOne needs GaGa around in order to produce his best.
If you can bear to continue beyond that, the remainder of Stronger isn’t too dissimilar to the rest of Blige’s post-millennium output, mixing simple but effective mid-paced R&B (Each Tear, the StarGate produced I Feel Good), club hits such as the surprisingly heavy The One and the will.i.am-produced I Can’t Wait, and a large dose of ‘I made it back from the brink and now I’m stronger’ (the first single, I Am). One of the few genuine surprises comes in the shape of City On Fire, which marries an urgent, clattering beat with an impassioned vocal imploring the return of soldiers from an unnamed war zone. Towards the end, an impassioned Blige can barely contain herself, wailing “Where are the husbands? Where are the fathers? Bring them back to life”. Oddly, the track is missing from the US version of the album that came out late last year.
Another track on the UK-only version is the Polow Da Don-produced Stronger, which is a good example of what can happen when Blige attempts a modern pop makeover. Over soaring synths, processed strings and a popping beat, her swollen vocals sound revitalised. However, it’s when Blige’s vocals are presented front and centre on the gorgeous I Can See In Color (taken from the film Precious) that you remember just how amazing that voice is. Every note and lyric is wrenched out and delivered with such intensity that you barely notice the subtle musical backing. It goes without saying that it’s what suits her best.
Stronger With Each Tear, as with most R&B albums, attempts to cover all bases and as such feels a little all over the place. Thankfully, there’s enough here to cover the cracks that appear when she’s taken out of her comfort zone, which, as much as it shows diversity, seems an odd place to want to leave when the results are often so spectacular.