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But that process does raise some questions: How do you let go of that which you can’t easily release — the history that birthed you, the dysfunction that shaped you, the consequences of past behaviors that were, in truth, actually reactions to a larger canvas of cause and effect? How much should you let go?
And, to cut Blige some slack: What’s the texture of happiness when you’re still scarred, if not misshapen, by past battles? It’s not going to be simple, or simply bliss. It’s not the gift of amnesia, airbrushed memory. It’s something more complex, more weighted. Take a closer look at Blige, beyond the newly honeyed skin and white-girl hair. Her eyes don’t smile, don’t broker trust or an air of being carefree. On Breakthrough’s opening track, “No One Will Do,” she sings, “I know y’all heard before/These same old metaphors/But my love is so much more . . .” with a certain blue-tinted breeziness. But the contrast between the song’s denotative meaning and its darker emotional tones gives what could have been pop fluff the weight of ghosts, marrow-oozing awareness of the costs of her current “happiness.” It’s one of the best performances on the new CD.
But that particular dynamic between emotional and lyrical elements is rare for Blige. Usually, her on-the-nose prose (called blunt or honest by her fans) converges a little too perfectly with mournful-to-histrionic vocals, boxing in a voice that bleeds beyond borders and begs, at this point, to be attached to lyrics that are more ambitious, more ambiguous. (Her duet with Bono on a cover of U2’s “One” somewhat answers that request here, though Bono kinda sleepwalks through his performance.)
You’re left to wonder, why is it that what was done by so many artists to whom Blige is compared (Aretha, Billie, Chaka) — namely, the creation of a body of work centered on romantic pain and mistreatment — more irksome when Blige does it? The answer might be that those other artists left room for the listener to actually be the protagonist, not just a supporting character, when listening to the songs. The best artist sings from her soul and yours. But if you don’t already deeply love and (over-) identify with Blige, and aren’t completely besotted with her personal mythology, then you’re often left on the sidelines, awkwardly looking on as she bogarts the spot meant for both of you.
And unlike her politically attuned foremothers, Blige may give good press, but she continues to make art that never goes beyond six degrees of Mary. There’s no “Strange Fruit,” “Mississippi Goddamn” or “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her. The fact that she’s been called the Aretha or Nina of her generation is perhaps not the laughable stretch that it initially seemed. It might just speak volumes about our culture’s politics now, and about our shrunken requirements for idolatry and identification.
Here’s the thing, though: The Breakthrough is actually a fantastic album — most especially if taken as a standalone artifact from Mary’s career. It’s beautifully produced, full of hard beats and warm textures. The Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am, Rodney Jerkins, 9th Wonder and Jam & Lewis are among the crowd of producers who help shape a cohesive career-best for Blige. Her voice is not only stronger but also more dynamic than before; there’s a sparkling tenderness to a lot of her performances, balanced by some not-at-all-embarrassing rapping. At times, she even sounds like a young (somewhat shriller) Natalie Cole, with vintage soul-slinger Raphael Saadiq as her Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy rolled into one on the track “I Found My Everything.”
She still can over-sing like a mofo, but there are times when that absolutely works. On the future club hit “Can’t Hide From Love,” Blige attacks the lyrics like they owe her money (“Put your arms around me and don’t be shy/What you feel is a real woman/probably for the first time . . .”), riffing a breakdown lifted from the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” and making you forget that the co-billed Jay-Z is reduced to underused hype man. And the masturbatory “MJB Da MVP,” an ode-to-self that strings together titles of her past hits and references the song’s self-absorbed guest star, 50 Cent, provides these chuckle-inducing, Jerry Springer-esque lines: “Most of all, I wanna thank my fans for hanging in there with me during the bad times/And now you’re here to see me at a point in my life where I can actually call myself a queen/And for those of you that don’t like it, this is what you can do/You can do dis: You can hate it or love it, hate it or love it, hate it or love it . . .” It’s the new anthem for neck-swiveling, self-loving queens of all races and genders.