Since the release of her debut album What’s The 411 in 1992, Mary J Blige has risen to become one of the modern day icons of the soul scene. From early collaborations with Sean ‘P Diddy’ Coombs to recent guest spots with The Game, it’s hard to find anybody in the hip-hop world with a bad word to say about her.
So is there really something about Mary, or is she just another soul diva? Well her tough upbringing in Yonkers, New York and her various struggles with drink, drugs and men who’ve done her wrong have been pretty well documented across her previous albums, giving her a bond with her audience that other singers may lack.
Nowadays though, she’s happily married and drugs are just a distant memory, and so The Breakthrough is full of songs declaring her love for her husband and how she’s putting her bad days behind her and moving on. All very lovely for Ms Blige of course, but for the listener it grows a bit wearying.
Her voice still sounds as good as ever though. About You silkily weaves in a sample of Nina Simone‘s Feelin’ Good – not many modern day singers can sound the equal to Simone, but Blige manages it. The taut production by Will I Am of Black Eyed Peas recalls former glories such as Family Affair, making it one of the best tracks on the album.
Similarly, a sample of Otis Redding & Carla Thomas‘ Tramp in Gonna Breakthrough drives the song along perfectly, making it a smooth, superior slab of classy soul. Jay-Z also shows up on the euphoric Can’t Hide From Love, which produces almost as many audio endorphins as Beyoncé‘s Crazy In Love did a couple of years ago.
At eighteen tracks though, The Breakthrough does tend to go on a bit. If you’re not a fan of hip-hop/soul, you may find it all a bit hard-going. Drippy ballads such as Take Me As I Am and Father In You could be prescribed on the NHS as a cure for insomnia, while the lyrics become tedious beyond belief.
While it’s all very nice that Mary’s in love, a whole album of lyrics such as “Anybody who’s ever loved, ya know just what I feel/Too hard to fake it, nothing can replace it” (Be Without You), or “the way you kiss me, it’s like a real man” (I Found My Everything) is enough to have even the most romantic person reaching for the nearest sick bag.
Much better is the inspirational, Rodney Jerkins produced, Enough Cryin’ and a surprising guest spot by U2, in which the band’s classic One is covered. You’d think there’d been more than enough versions of this song to last a lifetime, but Blige and Bono’s voices work really well together, and the rock setting makes a nice change from the seemingly endless stream of soulful ballads.
Like a lot of her previous albums, The Breakthrough is overlong and spoilt by too many producers sticking their oar in. One of these days she’ll produce a tight, focused album that’s worthy of her wonderful voice – The Breakthrough isn’t it, but there’s enough good moments to keep her legions of fans more than happy.