On her 15th studio album, the queen of hip-hop soul dives into life as a single lady.
Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige
| Credit: Frank Ockenfels

Officially, Mary J. Blige is an R&B singer (and occasionally, an actress for film and TV). But for three decades her music has also served as a sort of open-source support network, with Blige at the center as therapist and confessor, self-esteem coach and cold-truth teller. The personal struggles and revelations laid bare on albums with titles like Share My WorldNo More Drama, and Stronger With Each Tear seem to arrive unfiltered by success or stardom. To legions of fans she's just Mary: striver, survivor, high priestess of love and pain.

"I ain't never been the type to/Talk about some s--- I never really been through," she intones huskily on "No Idea," the stuttering soul throwback that opens her 15th studio album, Good Morning Gorgeous. As if listeners needed to be reminded that every song here is autobiography: At 51, the New York native readily owns her origin story ("Been doing shows since high school/To the mall then record in the mic booth") and the hardships that shaped her. Mostly, though, she chooses to focus on the now — specifically, life as a single lady.

If 2017's Strength of a Woman was her divorce record, chronicling the messy end of a 15-year marriage to producer Kendu Isaacs, Gorgeous is the sound of an artist slowly emerging from the other side. The sinuous, string-plucked "Love Will Never" steps self-protectively away from a new romance with the same old issues; "Here With Me," featuring a loping guest rap from Anderson .Paak, longs for more than sex with morning-after regrets. "This isn't love, this is roulette/I just want back what I put into this," she laments on the rueful "Rent Money," logging the costs of a lover who took more than he gave.

Satisfied, maybe, that enough time has been spent on trifling exes, the album pivots crisply to party mode on "Amazing," a reset so determined to kick out the jams that it literally arrives on a blast of air horns and repeated commands to "Bring the cake in." (Would you expect less from producer DJ Khaled, music's champagne-bucket hype man?) The lush, gospel-tinged title track summons self-love for the makeup-free face in the mirror, while "Come See About Me" extends a private invitation over a swaying backbeat and tender piano trills. Darker thoughts return on the dusky ballads "Without the Heartbreak" and "Failing in Love," but misery concedes to company on the record's starry closing collaborations: "Need Love," a buttery bedroom duet with Usher, and the pretty, skittering Ne-Yo–assisted bonus track "Running."

As a lyricist, Blige's gift has never really been specificity so much as sincerity, and the songwriting on Gorgeous circles subjects so familiar they've worn in like grooves on vinyl: hope, heartache, learning to love and let go. But that experience lives comfortably in her voice — now settled into a deeper, raspier register — and in the freedom that comes from no longer holding prime valuation in the pop marketplace. There's a lean-in intimacy to the production too, which seesaws between feathery new-jack shuffles and a kind of soulful syncopated simmer that wouldn't sound wrong on an old jukebox. Releasing "Amazing" as an early single feels almost like an obligatory nod to the Hot 100: Let them eat cake, then stay for the stuff it took a lifetime to earn. Grade: B+ 

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