Mary J. Blige: Mary

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Mary J. Blige

Album: Mary
Label: MCA

For much of the '90s, R&B has creatively struggled as a genre, its practitioners frequently torn between the traditions of soul and blues and the cultural juggernaut that is hip hop. Even now, with the genre invigorated by a talented new generation of artists, R&B still seems at times like hip hop's awkward older sibling, a feeling that's only intensified by the fact that many of its top names, such as Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, The Roots (which helped produce Erykah Badu's vastly influential debut album), and Lauryn Hill are primarily moonlighting hip-hop artists. Macy Gray is touring the country opening for The Roots, and what sets her apart is that she draws comparatively little from the world of hip hop, embracing instead the traditional organ- and piano-soaked sonic world of alt-rock soulstresses like Fiona Apple and Joan Osborne. With a band that includes sidemen to the famous (Apple) and semi-famous (Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Elliott Smith, Sam Phillips), Jon Brion, and former Soundgarden drummer Matt Chamberlain, Gray's album has a familiar, mildly funky vibe. At times it recalls the work of both Apple (minus the high drama and self-laceration) and Prince, whose spiritual and sensual concerns are keenly reflected on such songs as "Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak," "Caligula," and "I Can't Wait To Meetchu." Only 10 songs long, On How Life Is never wears out its welcome, but Gray's vaguely self-empowering lyrics still have a ways to go until they can match the power and authority of her gorgeous, unique voice. As "The Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul," Mary J. Blige has played a crucial role in uniting the worlds of hip hop and R&B, and on her fourth studio album, she continues to successfully cross-breed the genres, deftly mixing sampling and wholesale appropriation of other artists' songs into her work. Mary starts off brilliantly with the lush, Lauryn Hill-penned "All That I Can Say," leading to a series of songs that perfectly capture the winning mixture of toughness and vulnerability that makes Blige such a force. Like Billie Holliday, she recognizes that vulnerability can be a singer's best friend, and there are songs on Mary in which her voice is so open and raw that listening to her becomes almost uncomfortably voyeuristic. Unlike the work of, say, Puff Daddy, Blige's songs about the emotional price of fame don't come off as self-pitying or arrogant. Instead, her endless searching for love untainted by self-interest and greed somehow comes across as universal and deeply touching. Mary falls apart a bit toward the end—it's never a good sign when hack songwriter Diane Warren shows up, this time with wizened easy-listening has-been Eric Clapton in tow—and Mary's implementation of hip hop isn't always smooth, as when The Lox's Jadakiss contributes an out-of-place verse on the otherwise beautiful "Sexy." Those quibbles aside, Mary is a triumph, winning proof that Blige has survived the perils of fame with her honesty and integrity intact.