There are people who shouldn’t even pretend to be at peace — take, for instance, Mary J. Blige. From the moment this self-proclaimed ”queen of hip-hop soul” arrived nearly 15 years ago, she’s reveled in the theatrical, both on record (her tough-minded debut, What’s the 411?) and in her personal life (pure-diva behavior and bygone substance-abuse problems). Right up through 2001’s robust return to form No More Drama, crises real and imagined have infused her work; without them, she’s nothing. For proof, listen to 2003’s slack Love & Life, which tried to present a more contented Blige but mainly reduced her to moaning orgasmic lines like ”Ooh, what you do to me” to thudding Diddy-produced beats.
The Breakthrough, which seems like the latest in her never-ending series of post-first-album comebacks, thankfully returns some of the drama to her music. The tracks, helmed by nearly every established or up-and-coming producer in R&B, don’t smother her as much as those on Love & Life, and its messy sprawl of conflicted emotions feels true to her fierce, prickly personality (not to mention life itself). From track to track, Blige, who’s asserted in recent interviews that her two-year-old marriage has finally brought her serenity, is defiant (”Enough Cryin,” with fisticuff rhythms that match her anger), combative (”Ain’t Really Love”), and self-promotional (the nutty ”MJB Da MVP” finds her chronicling her career, album by album, to the track of the Game’s ”Hate It or Love It” — that’s right, a sample of a sample). Tortured autobiography also finds its way into ”Father in You” (as you may guess, she wants her men to be just like daddy) and ”Take Me as I Am” — the story of a woman who’s been ”lost and found” and turns out to be, of course, Blige herself.
The album doesn’t always live up to its title; it tends to fall back on mainstream, commercial R&B, all feather-pillow arrangements, oozy harmonies, and metronomic beats. Tracks like ”No One Will Do” and ”Good Woman Down” — in which she pledges devotion to her man and herself, respectively — forsake the hip-hop vibe of Love & Life for a more upscale, buppie-radio sheen. (She sounds like Alicia Keys’ older, careworn sister, if not her mom.) Yet Blige’s rough edges can never be fully sanded down, and her voice always comes to the rescue. It’s still a strong, robust instrument that, as on ”Ain’t Really Love,” can soar into gospel-style shout-outs. Her throatiness and the hints of vocal weariness add depth and experience, elevating standard-issue R&B nuzzlers like ”Be Without You” and ”About You.” And if you’re looking for an exact re-creation of Aretha during her supper-club-soul era, look no further than ”I Found My Everything.”
Blige’s glowering version of U2’s ”One” isn’t just a remake but a reinvention: When she pointedly sings ”Did I disappoint you?” she makes the song more personal — more secular — than Bono did. Even if R. Kelly has now trumped her in the R&B-freak category with ”Trapped in the Closet,” The Breakthrough ultimately doesn’t disappoint, either. Try as she might to fully settle down, she’ll always be one of pop’s loosest, most fiery cannons.