When the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul recorded her second album, 1994′s rightly revered My Life, she was in a bad personal place — struggling with depression, drug addiction, alcoholism and an abusive relationship with Jodeci’s K-Ci. But somehow she managed to repurpose that pain to create the rare smash R&B album of its era with a pervasively introspective, often melancholy tone. Its many samples, cover versions and interpolations of classic soul conjured an image of Blige turning to her favorite records for guidance through her darkest hour. “How can I love somebody else/ if I can’t love myself enough to know when it’s time, time to let go?” she asked in summation of the album’s central struggle in “Be Happy,” the concluding track on a song suite that plays out like one sustained prayer for sobriety and serenity.
Suggesting both a return to that creative apex and a contrast to its many emotional lows, Blige’s largely celebratory 10th studio release comes heavy with hip-hop cameos in its first and late-second-act tracks, then rallies with wiser and far stronger ballads. She may have famously vowed to turn her back on drama, but its gravitational pull lingers: “Bad boys ain’t no good, good boys ain’t no fun,” she laments in the Drake-featuring “Mr. Wrong.” And she’s still turning to vintage jams for sustenance: Producer Darkchild brings a pounding house beat to an otherwise reverent rendition of Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody.”
The track that most convincingly argues that she has moved on from her embattled past is a stunning cover of Justin Timberlake associate Matt Morris’s “Someone to Love You,” here titled “Need Someone.” It’s an acoustic country-soul slowie in which she offers a newly fortified shoulder to lean on, one that won’t stray or falter. It’s Blige’s quiet strength that here speaks loudest.