Mary J. Blige doesn't really need the stellar help she gets on "Mary" (MCA), but she takes advantage of her partnerships, particularly with Lauryn Hill and Aretha Franklin. A meeting between the Queen of Soul and the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul was probably inevitable, and it inspires pure vocal empathy and emotional sparks on the Babyface-produced "Don't Waste Your Time." In that song, Blige and Franklin vent their mutual frustrations over do-wrong men--"What's the point of giving what he don't deserve?"--and insist that they're going to regain control of skewed relationships.
Much of "Mary" explores romantic anxiety, alternating between the optimism of tracks like the Hill-written and -produced "All That I Can Say," "Beautiful Ones" and an impassioned remake of the Gap Band's 1979 ballad, "I'm in Love," and the somber reflections of "Memories," "The Love I Never Had" and "No Happy Holidays."
Hill's "All That I Can Say" is lover's praise that bears a slight resemblance to both "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and her Franklin hit, "A Rose Is Still a Rose," with a warm '70s vibe and a level of trust that's rare in the modern lexicon of love ("With you, I can let down my guard"). On several cuts, including "Beautiful Ones" and "Time," Blige reteams with Washington producer Chucky Thompson. The latter song is particularly strong; a supple guitar vamp and subtle interpolations of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" and two Al Green standards provide Blige with a reflective context in which to muse on social problems.
This, it turns out, is much better than when she fixates on herself on "Deep Inside," which lazily appropriates the well-known piano vamp from "Benny and the Jets" to revisit "My Life." It's a measure of Blige's diva-hood that Sir Elton John actually came to the studio to lay it down live 25 years later as Blige plays poor, poor pitiful sob sister: "Is it the cash they see when they look at me/ Or is it a free ride they want from me. . . . Deep inside, I wish that you could see that I'm just plain old Mary."
Blige is more convincing as an injured party in the tawdry love triangle of "Your Child." While sympathetic to the woman who's borne her man's child, Blige is unforgiving of the man, challenging him: "How could you deny your own flesh and blood?" It's the kind of real-life scenario that brings out the best in her, as is "Not Lookin'," a testy duet with long-ago lover K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci, who makes clear the severe limitations on a possible relationship. "I'm not impressed with your honesty," Blige responds, adding a few explicit comments to her refusal to be played.
The new album provides several strong vocal showcases: the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced track "The Love I Never Had," is a taut, old-fashioned soul workout in the manner of Chaka Khan; "Give Me You" is an engaging romantic entreaty written by Diane Warren, who apparently has a contract to provide a song to every platinum artist in the world. And the queen of hip-hop soul turns disco diva on the closing track, "Let No Man Put Asunder," a minor hit for First Choice back in 1977, and a smooth, dizzying workout for Blige in 1999.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8151.)