Mary J. Blige, The Breakthrough

Peter S. Scholtes

By Peter S. Scholtes

on 10.20.11 in Reviews

After three straight albums of commercial decline, Geffen pushed for a Mary J. Blige best-of in 2005. Instead she came back with her biggest album since her debut, a work of popular soul so bracingly assured in its Blige-ness that the title — as autobiographical in its way as all the others — would have provided a readymade headline had critics not been slow to come around.

Her biggest album since her debut

The R&B No. 1/Pop No. 3 “Be Without You” was only the entry point, though it was her most joyful since “Real Love,” a kind of call-and-response Million Couple March crafted by Bryan-Michael Cox and set to tinkling piano, with Blige working an imagined audience of dancers (“put your hands up/ Fellas, tell your ladies she’s the one”) and FM listeners (“Call the radio if you just can’t be without your baby”). The heart of the album was this therapeutic uplift at a more focused level of self-consciousness — part Oprah Winfrey, part Atmosphere’s Slug. Blige really was doing it for the fans now.

The Breakthrough

Mary J. Blige

Had she waited to fully unload until the music was right? Credits list a dozen-plus producers, but for once Blige sounds fully in charge. The album opens with a show of production force (the sped-up-O’Jays of “No One Will Do”), closes with a show of vocal force (a kamikaze “One,” with U2 backing), and annexes the Game’s “Hate It or Love It” in between for one of 50 Cent’s better choruses and a “Glass Onion” on Blige’s discography. These gestures made, the singer turns to those who understand her best: “Good Woman Down” is “for all my troubled sisters,” in whom she confides about her father’s abuse of her mother, while “Take Me As I Am” romanticizes the bond this confidence creates. “Baggage” and “Father in You” address her husband, or anyone else who ever cared for an abused heart, so maybe those are for fans too.

The album sold 3.1 million copies in the U.S., and was nominated for eight Grammys, winning three. Her best-of came the following year with four new tracks.