Mary J. Blige has been the reigning soul and hip-hop queen for more than a decade. Despite her throne, part of what makes Blige fascinating are the times she’s almost fallen from it.
Every album since her first, “What’s the 411?,” has contained a mixture of love and heartbreak with a couple of party/dance jams thrown in.
But Blige creates a kind of myth with her albums. She makes the listener think the album is deeply personal and autobiographical (although oftentimes she does not write the songs). In actuality, each album follows the similar formula and the content hardly varies. However, Blige always selects revealing album titles (such as “My Life”) and adds a couple of lines that self-reference the latest saga in her life. It’s not much, but it’s just enough to make us feel like Blige is sharing her secrets.
On her 2001 record Blige declared “No More Drama,” and her newest record, “The Breakthrough,” maintains that sentiment. “The Breakthrough” is Blige’s post-marriage album, and it contains more positive love songs than ones about sadness and loneliness. Which begs the question: Is a drama-free Blige still worth listening to?
With “The Breakthrough” it becomes clear Blige can still be compelling without the illusion that she is a victim. Perhaps this shedding of vulnerability has helped to make it Blige’s strongest and most consistent album.
The hit single “Be Without You” is classic mid-to-slow tempo soul with an irresistible chorus. “Can’t Hide from Luv,” which gets a little help from Jay-Z, and “Gonna Breakthrough” are just as club worthy as past jams like “Family Affair” or “Real Love.”
Near the end of “The Breakthrough,” the album has one too many monotonous ballads, but they also prove Blige still sticks to a basic formula. She might be happy now, but she knows not all her listeners are. Thus “The Breakthrough” is balanced with happiness and struggle, and upbeat, glitchy hip-hop and down-tempo soul. To say that “The Breakthrough” is Blige’s “happy” record is like saying Jay-Z really is retired.
Blige always sounded as though she needed to prove her royalty status by constantly evolving. On the track “MJG Da MVP” she sings, “I’m the soul hip-hop queen and I ain’t going nowhere but you already know me.”
With “The Breakthrough,” Blige has truly embraced her title.