Pop quiz: Imagine you’re one of the shapers of contemporary R&B, a razor-sharp producer like Sean ”Puffy” Combs or a platinum-plaited exec like Motown’s Andre Harrell. And the ’90s equivalent of Michael Jackson or Prince — a gifted oddball whose weirdness doesn’t outweigh his talent — walks into your office. What do you do? If you adhere to the standard operating procedures of either of these industry players, you’ll snap up the neophyte, zero in on whatever it is that makes him or her unique, and expunge it, ensuring that he sounds identical to everyone else. The name on the CD may be Joe or Tasha Holiday (to name but two of the Stepford Soulsters currently clogging the R&B charts), but the artist’s identity is irrelevant. As long as a subterranean bass is undulating, a silky synth line is wafting, and a guest rapper is providing a pungent cameo, the vocal refrain could be handled by AOL’s ”Welcome, you’ve got mail” man and still wind up on the Booty Call 2 soundtrack.
When a singer working in such exploitative, melodically deprived, and lyrically challenged times is anointed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, you have to figure she wears the title about as regally as the retailer who bills himself as the Mattress King. However, when the ladies-in-waiting are the little-voiced likes of Monica, Monifah, Brandy, and Aaliyah, then the throne belongs to Mary J. Blige, a singer who emotes in the bruised but defiant manner of a blues artist, and whose reputation as an abusive bad girl gives her that rarest of attributes in today’s R&B: a personality.
Share My World is being promoted as the work of a new Mary J. Blige, a warm, dressed-to-the-nines, non-tantrum-throwing woman of the world. This kind of transformation usually means misery for audiences. But one listen to the exultant way Blige reacts to the whomping drums, vast chorus, and wide-screen production Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis cook up on ”Love Is All We Need,” and it becomes clear that a chipper Mary J. is good news all-round. She unleashes equal joy on the other Jam-Lewis contribution, ”Everything,” a song that builds on the foundation of the Stylistics nugget ”You Are Everything.” Continuing her streak of smartly chosen covers, Blige breathes new life into the old Natalie Cole hit ”Our Love,” vamping gleefully through the coda. But amid all this good cheer, Share My World‘s twin highlights are weepies penned and produced by Babyface, who has worked with a plethora of performers (Whitney Houston, Brandy, Boyz II Men) adept at cooing sweetly through his lilting lullabies — but only Blige is capable of imbuing his compositions with grit. Not only is her piece of the Waiting to Exhale pie, the snarling ”Not Gon’ Cry,” present, but Babyface has also written for her an atypically tart country-blues lament called ”Missing You,” which features a choir of aching Mary J.’s. That’s the good news. The bad news is, set against songs of this caliber, Blige’s self-written material comes off as meandering and half finished.
In another era, when songcraft was a consideration and singers had discernible identities, Mary J. Blige might have attained the mid-level status of a Thelma Houston. And if Erykah Badu’s stunningly realized Baduizm turns out to be, as many believe, the Nevermind of current R&B, Blige may be left in the dust. But right now, having made an uneven album packed with career-peak performances, she is the only example of a hip-hop soul practitioner attempting to make a record that’s more than a product placement opportunity for Lexus and Cristal. For that, Blige deserves her crown. B+