Mary J. Blige: Soul 'Stronger' Than Music The "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," Blige has just released her ninth studio album, Stronger With Each Tear. While the full collection may not be what you'd expect from royalty, critic Ken Tucker says admirers will still find plenty of tracks that showcase Blige's power and craft.
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Mary J. Blige: Soul 'Stronger' Than Music

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Mary J. Blige: Soul 'Stronger' Than Music

Review

Music Reviews

Mary J. Blige: Soul 'Stronger' Than Music

Mary J. Blige: Soul 'Stronger' Than Music

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Mary J. Blige has a classic R&B instrument: Her voice has that mixture of gospel assurance, soulful rawness and dynamic range that enables her to make her best performances into short stories with a beginning, a middle and an often cataclysmic end. Her ninth studio album, Stronger With Each Tear, is an uneven effort that finds Blige shifting her tactics between commercial calculation, gut-instinct music she just wants to sing the heck out of, and some ineffable combination of the two. All of these factors come together in one of the remarkably good songs on the album, "Kitchen."

In addition to Stronger With Each Tear, Mary J. Blige recently recorded music for the movie soundtrack to Precious. Kevin Winter/Getty hide caption

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Kevin Winter/Getty

In addition to Stronger With Each Tear, Mary J. Blige recently recorded music for the movie soundtrack to Precious.

Kevin Winter/Getty

The song has a slightly strained metaphor — the man she loves is "her kitchen," and thus the refrain, "Never let a girl cook in your kitchen" — but Blige carries it off. Her tone is at once pleading (Don't take him away from me), ferocious (You'd better not take him) and playful (This is my kitchen, honey, and things can get hot in here). The result is a fine, fine pop-soul ballad.

A few times on this album, Blige is obliged to craft a few cutting-edge hip-hop tracks, but she's too much of a craftsperson to make them sound like mere obligations. This quality is what gives "The One" — a track performed with Drake, the hottest name in hip-hop right now — a jolt of juiciness. Drake's line late in the song, "You might block me, but this ain't Jenga," doesn't hurt, either.

One particularly standout performance on Stronger With Each Tear is the song "In the Morning." Blige begins the song crooning smoothly alongside a beautifully arranged brass and keyboard section. Then, she modulates into the more forceful chorus, asking the question, "Will you love me in the morning?" — and leaving the listener to think, "Who would have the nerve not to?"

What Blige does on "In the Morning" is to update the kind of soul Aretha Franklin made in 1976 on the appallingly underrated soundtrack to the movie Sparkle, produced and arranged by Curtis Mayfield. Like Mayfield, Blige is a changeling artist: She can play the defiant one, the victim, the seducer and the controller all with equal effectiveness when her material approaches her talent. On Stronger With Each Tear, she's taken what could have been just one more inspirational-anthem hodgepodge and shaped it into something that may have weak spots, but can also carry you away with a romantic realism that's as brutal as it is dreamily hypnotizing.