Mary J. Blige’s new album, “My Life II . . . the Journey Continues (Act 1),” starts off the same way that her classic 1994 album, “My Life,” did — with a few words of wisdom from the rap sage Diddy, whom Blige charmingly still refers to as “Puff.” The man who helped engineer Blige’s career cautions her about revisiting the “My Life” concept some 17 years after that album’s amazing success. “ ‘My Life’ is a classic, so if you do it, you gotta come with it, girl,” he advises. Blige then attempts to explain that “My Life II” is not meant to eclipse “My Life” but rather to serve as “a sequel,” documenting how she has gradually learned to cope better with life’s ups and downs. But navigating life’s adversities in a healthy, mature way doesn’t exactly sound like the blueprint for a phenomenal R&B album, let alone one meant to be a follow-up to one of the most emotionally wrenching, honest R&B albums of the past couple of decades.
As a sequel to “My Life,” “My Life II” may disappoint fans, for no reason other than that Blige is no longer a troubled 20-something willing to lay out her struggles for the world to hear. But viewed as just the latest Mary J. Blige project, it’s a solid album filled with small touches that will recall ’90s-era Blige. A smooth cover of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” comes off more as a laid-back homage than a direct challenge, which is what many thought of Blige’s famous take on “Sweet Thing.” And Blige still has a remarkable talent for picking rap collaborators — here she teams with Nas on “Feel Inside,” Busta Rhymes on “Next Level,” Drake on “Mr. Wrong,” and Rick Ross on the smooth “Why.” But the album’s jewel is “Love a Woman,” a song that puts Blige and Beyoncé on a single track. The ballad, with its cheesy, delightful New Jack-era R&B production, blasts the notion that MJB is all raw power and Beyonce is all chilly technique — the women are both bold and great here, with a slight advantage going to Blige. Nearly 20 years after her breakout sophomore album, it’s nice to see that no one, not even Queen B, has been able to replace the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
“Ain’t Nobody,” “Why,” “Love A Woman”