Blige’s most enjoyable, exciting and consistent album in years.
Lloyd Bradley 2011-11-18
Three tracks into this album and you’re slapped around the head with the essence of Mary J. Blige. Midnight Drive claims no samples, delivering the kind of brash, uncluttered hip hop that’s always worked best for this singer. It’s a back-to-basics approach that is wholly refreshing; songs are built from the ground up, therefore fitting her perfectly. It’s nothing particularly new, either: just a clever updating of the hip hop soul she pioneered to virtually invent modern RnB, and then never quite seemed to get the best out of as the style was developed by others.
Reassuringly, as Blige and her long-term fans slip into middle age (she’s long since turned 40), this is the tone for the whole album. My Life II… comprises a set of songs geared to suit her rather than push her to compete outside of an established comfort zone. These are songs that aren’t afraid to reference former glories but, thankfully, frequently look for drama through the music rather than the subject matter.
There’s a real intelligence about the whole album that looks to old-school hip hop and late-model disco, which were never too far apart, to provide a platform springy enough and familiar enough for the singer to launch her vocals. Feel Inside and Someone to Love Me (Naked) – the latter an extra track on the ‘deluxe edition’ – rock with an infectious, self-celebratory energy. The bonus cut peaks when Blige’s lead vocal is swapped for Puffy’s rapping, and you wonder why this was never a first choice for the album ‘proper’. No less exciting are the seductively slinky dance grooves of You Want This, One Life and This Love For You – all three are bonus inclusions – and a potent version of Ain’t Nobody. It avoids typical problems with covers, the singer exhibiting sufficient confidence to make the song her own, reinvented as a swingbeat extravaganza with singing that reaches the same stratosphere Chaka Khan occupied first time around. Even My Life II’s regulation power ballads – The Living Proof, Empty Prayers, Need Someone – are excusable, as this time she seems relaxed to go for emotion rather than sheer volume.
Not that it’s quite all rosy in the Mary J. garden: the duet with Drake is aptly titled Mr Wrong; the cheesy ballad Why works too hard to smooth out its rough edges and better suits collaborator Rick Ross; and the telephone call skit Intro – to Puffy – is just plain dumb. But the reason these lapses in taste jar so noticeably is because the rest of the album is the most enjoyable, exciting and consistent Mary J. Blige set since her debut What’s The 411? was released nearly 20 years ago.