MARY J. BLIGE
The Breakthrough (Geffen)

Maintaining the title "queen of hip-hop soul," hasn't been easy for Blige lately. Recent musical efforts have been lackluster, and competition from much younger, technically able singers has offered arduous challenges. But with her seventh studio release, Blige has indubitably reclaimed her throne. Her realism has remained consistent throughout her career -- her confessional approach to her lyrics that offers listeners a look into her world. Tapping into her original flavor, she raps on "Enough Cryin'" and on her U2 duet "One," reminding us that hip-hop and soul can make wonderful bedmates. That's especially evident on "MJB Da MVP," where she admits that this is "the point in my life where I can actually call myself a Queen." Spicing it up with a gospel-tinged delivery reminiscent of Aretha Franklin, Blige effortlessly blends her vocals with the soulful pop melodies of "About You," her duet with will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, then switches the pace on "Can't Hide from Luv," which features Jay-Z. Even on "Can't Get Enough," and "I Found My Everything," featuring Raphael Saadiq, there are echoes of Aretha's mellifluous vocals. But what's most pleasing about The Breakthrough is the feeling that love is treating Blige well. For the R&B diva, once tormented by bad relationships, drugs, and alcohol, this album is her opportunity for reinvention. It's still classic hip-hop soul, but there's a maturity here -- something that places Mary J. Blige far above other R&B contenders. Lynne D Johnson

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