Blige remains as relevant as any of her more recent contemporaries.
Daryl Easlea 2010
Mary J. Blige returns like the elder stateswoman that she is with this, her ninth album, and first since 2007’s Growing Pains. Released in the States before Christmas, it rushed to number two – charting just a week after Alicia Keys’ The Element of Freedom, many saw its timing as instigating a direct battle of the soul divas.
For this international edition, two Led Zeppelin covers have been puzzlingly added, which somewhat corrupts the overall smooth grooving RnB flow. That said, the hugely fun, stomping electro version of Whole Lotta Love, which opens the album, certainly acts as a palette cleanser. Blige is no stranger to rock balladry after her version of One with U2, but the all-star version of Stairway to Heaven here is quite exquisite. With its full orchestra and Stevie Vai playing Jimmy Page’s solo, it’ll have some old Zep fans tearing the heads off chickens – but Blige adds a soulful gravitas to Robert Plant’s mystical lyric.
However, the Zeppelin bookends are little more than novel diversions, as elsewhere it is business as usual. Tonight is a fine atmospheric groove, and I Am is a classic Blige single: pathos, style and simplicity in equal measure. The One features Canadian rapper Drake and the requisite 2010 beeps and bleeps; although the sound of Blige going through an Auto-Tune filter is like getting Rembrandt to paint by numbers.
While producers such as Rodney Jerkins, will.i.am and Ne-Yo keep it feeling contemporary and demonstrate their considerable chops throughout, the scene stealer comes from Raphael Saadiq: Color, from the film Precious. Shorn of the tricksy effects elsewhere on the album, it is simply Blige accompanied by a mournful Hammond, an electric piano, a simple beat and some gospel backing. It is truly outstanding.
It is easy sometimes to take Mary J. Blige for granted; neither as showy or attention grabbing as some of her peers, she is adding to a body of work that is one of the strongest in RnB. Although Stronger with Each Tear may not be one of her greatest works, it ensures that Blige remains as relevant as any of her more recent contemporaries.