Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It’s what makes a successful Wall Street broker miss his broke-ass, beer-swilling college days. It’s what causes a cozy co-op owner to look back longingly on the old neighborhood — crack epidemic and all. And it’s the reason producer/mogul P. Diddy is hoping old-school heads and longtime Mary J. Blige fans will revel in the rawness of her sixth CD, love & life.
History lesson: Back in the day, many a struggling streetcorner mixtape DJ made a quick buck laying R&B a cappellas over recognizable hip-hop tracks. Mary J. Blige’s ’92 debut, ”What’s the 411?,” coproduced by one Sean ”Puffy” Combs, capitalized on that rough-hewn sound and launched Ms. Blige’s career as the ”queen of hip-hop soul.” After a nine-year split, the two are collaborators once again, and Diddy, hell-bent on reacquainting the new-millennium, no-more-drama Mary with the beleaguered, ball-caps-and-block parties Mary of yesteryear, banks on all the same tricks, from the opening phone skit to the rapper du jour cameos.
Eve explodes emotionally on ”Not Today.” And though he’s no Grand Puba, 50 Cent’s laid-back loverman routine lends much-needed narrative to ”Let Me Be the 1.” (Nine bullet wounds be damned, the guy’s a lover, not a fighter!) But it’s the throwback sound of the tracks — heavy on East Coast boom-bap and synth-laden soul bytes — that’s really intended to evoke those good memories. Diddy resurrects what sounds like obscure early-’90s hip-hop fare from Puba, Wu-Tang Clan, Ed O. G & da Bulldogs, and…well, maybe you had to be there.
Because if you weren’t, Diddy’s plundering barely works. The recycled loops — especially on ”Ooh!” and ”Love @ 1st Sight” — are shallow, trebly echoes of their former selves. And Blige, despite her signature heartache-inducing voice, cannot save ”love” from her heavy-handed songwriting. The album is soggy with relationships — with good men, bad men, and God — and parched of nuance. Halfway through, it plunges into melancholy-ballad hell — a sequencing deathblow from which it does not recover. Guess you can’t go homegirl again.