- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mary J. Blige

Stronger With Each Tear


“Stronger With Each Tear” has a split personality. The ninth studio album by Mary J. Blige looks like a classic soul album, with a cover that features a close-up portrait of the singer looking coolly confident and iconic.

Inside, though, Miss Blige is anything but alone. The early tracks feature guest artists, including current hip-hop favorite Drake and rapper T.I. These cuts, especially “The One,” featuring Drake, are tense and edgy, full of hype and tawdry production effects. Drake’s gloriously expressive voice seems especially diminished by the use of auto-tune — like a truffle wrapped in Wonder bread.

Without the collaborations, however, “Stronger” would be just a glorified extended-play album. The tracks may be here to stretch the effort into a genuine LP, and there’s enough for fans just looking for a taste of elegantly produced neo-soul.

“I Can See in Color,” first heard on the soundtrack to the film “Precious,” is a worthy addition to the R&B canon. It’s a slow, strong ballad that’s borne along with minimal orchestration: a few plucked electric guitar chords and a ghostly organ line. It’s a song of spiritual and psychic rebirth, and Miss Blige handles the mood with pitch-perfect restraint.

She strikes a more modern tone on “I Feel Good,” which kicks off with a fuzzy, mellow house synth intro and an easy beat ticked off on drum-machine hand claps.

The slow jam develops with Miss Blige singing over piano arpeggios. Lyrically, it’s a call to the dance floor — and a challenge to those who would dwell on negative publicity. She sings, “I’m going to dance away my drama/ So you best get out my way.”

Miss Blige brings the same determined confidence to the love song “I Am.” She sings languorously, pushing back against the busy drum-machine rhythms. Even “Kitchen,” despite its tinkle of bells and plodding piano rhythm, is a minor victory for lyrics such as, “Trying to take my man is like trying to take my money” and “Never let a girl cook in your kitchen.”

“Tonight,” the album’s opening track, is the most successful of the collaborations. Despite the multitude of production credits and backing vocals by R&B singer Akon, it sounds most like a Mary J. Blige song and less like a sales pitch for guest artists, with Miss Blige battling and besting the subwoofer exploding beats. The sweetly beguiling chorus contrasts effectively with the ominous synth sound that dominates throughout. And while the song lacks resolution, the four-minute track sounds like the foundation of an extended club mix.

In the end, “Stronger” could use a little more Mary J. Blige. While the singer’s previous efforts have had their share of featured artists, here they seem like the result of demographic calculations designed to put Miss Blige in front of younger fans of Drake and Akon and to offer a sample of the newest and latest hip-hop voices to her core audience.

That said, there are at least six tracks here that no fan of R&B will want to miss — and “I Can See in Color” ranks among the top songs of the year.

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