Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough: The Queen Restores Order

Ever since she was given the crown as the Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul, with her ? debut, What’s The 411?, Mary J. Blige has struggled to maintain her title. And with her hit-and-miss discography, she’s tended to leave her loyal followers either confident in their Queen’s capabilities (the painful yet brilliantly introspective My Life) or utterly dismayed (the spotty-at-best No More Drama). And after her last album, Love & Life, which saw a reunion of Mary and one-time collaborator Sean Combs, rested comfortably in the middle (but sold quite less than predicted), the outlook of Mary’s career was uncertain.

Was she slowly traveling down the road of washed-up diva? Or was she secretly strategizing a plan to reinvent and relaunch, thus rekindling people’s interest in her and her music? The answer to such a conundrum can be found with one listen to Mary’s 7th studio album (9th total), The Breakthrough.

Initially, Mary intended to release a Greatest Hits package (equivalent to another-nail-in-the-coffin for anybody’s career at this point) and just attach a few new tunes. But at the last second, her label smartly decided to switch gears and push a brand-new full-length instead; emphasis on smartly since one cursory listen to this record will quickly restore any lost faith in Ms. Blige’s capabilities and solidify her place as R&B royalty.

Every aspect of this record is near-flawless; with such a heavy arsenal of producers filling Mary’s musical chambers with ammo (16 tracks; 13 sets of producers), the productions here are probably the most intelligent and seamless meldings of Hip-Hop and Soul experienced all year. Considering her status as a (fairly-new) newlywed, Mary’s outlook on life has changed dramatically. But she struck the perfect lyrical balance by divvying up her subject matter equally among both the good and bad of love and life; both embracing her optimistic side while also inspiring and encouraging her fans still suffering through the struggle. And the voice is on-point (and key) to a fault. No more pitchy shrieks and off-key shrills to be found; only Mary’s power, range, control and melisma on proud display.

Lead single, Be Without You, was the leaked track that created so much buzz and pushed Geffen to scrap the GH album. Many have described it as Mary’s own “We Belong Together”, and the comparisons are quite accurate. Jermaine Dupri-protÃ?©gÃ?© Bryan-Michael Cox created a similar piano-and-claptrack backbeat, only substituting the 808 with strings. And the lyrics, too, speak of an undying love, although the relationship of this song has a much more positive outlook. And such an optimistic attitude towards love (which Mary hinted at on L&L) isn’t a fluke. It shades the whole record but rears its head on several distinct occasions.

There’s (the boring) album opener, and self-explanatory, No One Will Do, Mary’s open acknowledgement of love’s worth and omnipotence on the bubbly Can’t Hide From Luv, her mellow expression of how joyous it is to be head-over-heels on the infectiously smooth Can’t Get Enough, her tribute to hubby Kendu, and how she appreciates receiving a love from him that she longed to receive from some type of father-figure in her life on Father In You, which is sweet in concept but bland in execution, and the album’s centerpiece, I Found My Everything which is turned into what sounds like a long-lost Aretha Franklin composition (from Mary’s emotive vocals to the authentic-soul precision of the production) with a simple touch of Raphael Saadiq’s genius hand.

To the Mary fans still going through the struggle, several cuts on the album are directed towards inspiring and encouraging them to breakthrough to the other side (pun unintended). Rodney Jerkins creates a deep and thumping groove to help Mary inform those in dead-end relationships to get out while the getting’s good on Enough Cryin’. 9th Wonder shows Kanye up on the subtle soul-sampling and creates the lushest groove that epitomizes Hip-Hop-Soul on the record with the self-explanatory, as in can’t hold aGood Woman Down. And Take Me As I Am shows Mary singing in the 3rd person to detail how she herself learned the art of self-worth and self-love.

Those pining for the up-tempo side of Mary can find solace in her slightly-offbeat collabo with Will.I.Am. and Nina Simone (yes, Nina Simone) on About You, a brief summation of her career and how she became MJB Da MVP over Game’s destined-classic “Hate It or Love It”, and the bright, bubbly, and uplifting title track, which has Mary moonlighting as an emcee under her alias, Brook, and riding the hip-hop backbeat (which samples the classic Onyx joint, “Slam!”), like a true veteran.

And probably the most brilliant moment of all on this album is how Mary pulled off a feat only very few accomplish; having her album peak right where it should – at the end. Pairing up with Bono and U2, Mary closes the album out in show-stopping fashion with her cover of the U2 classic, One. A duet between Mary and Bono might seem a tad unsettling to some but trust and believe, Mary more than proves her worth as the Queen and sings this song with so much power and conviction that you just might feel the earth move beneath your feet.

Even though the album is just a tad too long for its own good (as most Mary albums are), The Breakthrough is quite possibly the second masterpiece of Mary’s career. It’ll certainly become a touchstone of R&B albums for many years to come and has removed any and all doubt that Mary was slowly losing ground and relevance in the R&B schematic. Order has been restored in the R&B court and it’s crystal-clear that the Queen has no intentions of abdicating her throne anytime soon.

She may have broken through but she’s by no means done breaking ground.

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