Mary J. Blige has returned after 2005's triumphant The Breakthrough like a superstar athlete coming off a championship season: She's looking hard for some motivational adversity to stay on top. On Growing Pains, Blige finds it by reaching beyond the relative stability of her personal life and playing up the vulnerable everywoman persona that's long resonated with her female fanbase. At a time when the competition is getting younger and chillier all the time—Beyonce and Rihanna might be the world's sexiest androids—Mary J.'s heart-on-her-sleeve humanity remains her greatest calling card.
Growing Pains sprints out of the gate with a potent double-shot of empowerment anthems: "Work That" and "Grown Woman" aggressively reiterate the classic hip-hop soul formula, with Blige gamely holding her own on the latter against an inspired guest appearance by Ludacris. After that, she settles into a comfortable groove of smooth, serenity-seeking ballads and retro-leaning head-bobbers, including "Till The Morning," another great Off The Wall knock-off from Pharrell Williams. (The album's first single "Just Fine" similarly quotes from "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough.") The old, crazy Mary reappears on the fire-spitting "Roses," but Blige is mostly wiser on Growing Pains. On "Work In Progress (Growing Pains)," written by increasingly impressive singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, she movingly reflects on her hard-won maturity and happiness. But, in typical jock fashion, she knows she still hasn't reached her full potential.