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Posted at 04:04 PM ET, 11/22/2011

Mary J. Blige releases new album: My Life II

Singer Mary J. Blige performs at the 2011 American Music Awards in Los Angeles November 20, 2011. (MARIO ANZUONI - REUTERS)
“It’s not a competitor, it’s a sequel, an extension of how far we’ve come,” says Mary J. Blige on the intro track of her new album, My Life II. . .The Journey Continues. By most indicators the Grammy-award winner is correct.

One need only compare the album covers of the first My Life (1994) album to the new one to see how far the artist has come.

The blue tint that set a somber tone on the original My Life album is replaced with the vibrant colors of a sunset. The singer’s face that was hidden with an oversized black leather hat is now exposed in a regal coif befitting a Queen. On the gorgeous new album, her profile can be read as the singer looking forward or backward. Judging from the content of the new album, it’s the latter. The singer-songwriter has a similar struggle.

Though the jingle of songs like “Midnight Drive,” her disco-mixed cover of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” and “25/8” are sure to inspire a riot on the dance floor, the content suggests an emotional throwback to a tumultuous moment in the singer’s life that produced bluesy self-effacing songs found on the original My Life album.

For die-hard Mary fans, the implications of Blige’s new songs- troubled, one-sided pleas for love- are disappointing.

The album has a marquee cast of collaborators--Nas, Busta Ryhmes, her alter-ego Brook Lynn, Rick Ross, Drake, Beyoncé that give what is supposed to be an intimate work a crowded block--party feel.

So how do the two “My Life” albums compare? The newest one lacks the grit and the soul-baring vulnerability of the first album. The new one is more finger-popping and less experimental than the original, which was influenced by other musical traditions including jazz and soul.

How does one replicate a “Be Happy” or “I’m Going Down?” The new album is slick, too deodorized, making it more of a before-after self-indulgent private-public moment. I’ll take the classic My Life album any day and purchase a few sessions with Dr. Phil for the R&B diva.

The new album comes into its own on songs like “Love a Woman,” a duet with Beyoncé. It’s closer to what is expected from a “matured” Mary J. “Think you know how to love a woman/ there are some things you need to know,” goes the song as it builds into a black girl manifesto. The echoes of women empowerment are more a Beyoncé influence, but they suit Blige well. Perhaps, the two songbirds should do a “Watch the Throne”album.

Finally, “Living Proof” seals the album as a document of the singer’s survival. There’s the sentiment that Mary J. Blige is more aware of her fierceness. That she will weather any storm that lay ahead.

But if you’ve followed the artist as closely as I have over the years, you want so much more than survival for the Queen of Hip Hop Soul from Yonkers. You long for a titanic moment where she belts out from the edge of a Yacht (that she owns) “I”m the Queen of the World” then the album begins (and perhaps her life.)

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By Abdul Ali  |  04:04 PM ET, 11/22/2011

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