Lauryn Hill wrote and produced the wonderfully lackadaisical “All That I Can Say,” and her connection to the song helped press Mary J. Blige further on the consciousness of bohemia and white critics, even as the diffuse 1999 album it opened sold fewer copies (2.1 million in America). The tune was an inspiration, yet apparently slight, just a few jazzy keyboard chords from the blissed-out template of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It,” tossed over a variation of the steppers beat that launched “Real Love.” But Blige found something beautiful and valuable, even soulful in the vocal equivalent of luxuriating. And did Hill touch anything as great again in the ’00s?
Sir Elton John rendered his “Bennie and the Jets” riff for “Deep Inside,” one of the more candid and absorbing singles about the loneliness of a rich and famous person, while Gerald Isaac’s “Your Child” put Blige in one of her best wronged-woman roles: meeting the baby that her man has never mentioned having, in the arms of the mother at the door, whom the narrator can’t help but respect. (It spun off a No. 1 dance remix.) A duet with K-Ci Hailey allowed the exes to place cards on the table behind his chorus “I’m not looking to fall in love with you.” And a duet with Aretha Franklin became a study in contrast true to the song’s shared sisterhood between an older and younger learner in love.
None of which was the equal of “All That I Can Say,” but Blige by now was a mood to explore and a talent to catch up on. She earned three Grammy nominations without any raps and not many more hooks.