Love for 'Life': Mary soothes souls again

Like all respectable royalty, Mary J. Blige employs an entourage to announce her presence.

And what an entourage it is! "Love and Life," the venerable Queen of hip-hop and soul's sixth studio album, is opened by P. Diddy and Jay-Z, two of the most successful men in the industry. On the intro, Jay-Z proclaims, "don't call it a comeback," and, indeed, you shouldn't. Blige's quality of music has only progressed throughout the years, making the intro superfluous.

Instead, Blige would prefer you say that she's "taking it back to the gutter."

Blige, a native of New York, made her break in 1992 with "What's the 411?" The debut and her second album, "My Life," were both produced by Puff Daddy. After citing creative differences, however, the two went their separate ways. Now, with a new beginning for both -- Puff with a new name and Blige with a new outlook on life -- they have reunited to create a successful album that features Eve, Method Man, 50 Cent, Jay-Z and a production credit to Dr. Dre for "Not Today."

Those basing their purchase of "Love and Life" on the catchy "Love @ First Sight," however, are going to be disappointed. No other song on the album sounds remotely like the single featuring Method Man. With danceable beats and a snappy hook, "Love @ First Sight" is, by far, the most commercial song of all the 18 tracks.

Instead of having an album that is centered around flashy beats, Blige focuses more on lyrics. She seems to desperately be trying to connect with her audience. Many of the songs have a strong melodic rhythm, where the message is brought to the forefront and the backbeat is kept in the background. The outcome is an emotionally driven album with just the right amount of vulnerability to break the barrier between artist and fan.

On the interlude, "Finally Made It," Blige drops the guard of her powerful singing voice to talk to her audience. She contemplates what she'd be doing if she weren't singing: "I'd probably be hustling two jobs, at least trying to do the right thing." The remaining two interludes on "Love and Life" are given with the same sincerity and openness. Blige is, no doubt, trying to reach that person who is struggling in the same type of neighborhood in which she grew up.

So what is the message of Blige's music? Well, she may be returning to the gutter, but it isn't to stay.

The majority of the songs on "Love and Life" are uplifting and happy.She seems to have come to grips with her earlier demons, such as drug addiction, which are notable on previous work. Instead, Blige is returning to the gutter to help bring people out.

The cause for this second wind is none other than love. Blige seems to have found incredible amounts of joy in her fiancé, which she makes perfectly clear on "Love and Life." Of the 14 songs on the album, only three are not love songs.

But Blige doesn't write giddy love songs; she is well past the puppy love stage. Her voice is very soulful and she doesn't use tongue-in-cheek lyrics to express her emotions.

Her songs are from her heart.

On "When We," she sings: "Sometimes it's hard for us to get along/ But I miss him when he's not home/ Nobody ever finds the perfect man/ But I'm gonna make the best with what I have." It's definitely not your typical head- over-heels love song. That's the life part of "Love and Life" and it's this realism that gives Blige merit.

Even when Blige isn't singing about her love life, her music has a positive spin. In the songs "Not Today" and "It's A Wrap," Blige empowers women by encouraging them to get out of dysfunctional relationships. Again, Blige throws in the "I've-been-there-too" card to show that she really does know what she's singing about.

If you're looking for a party album, you need to continue your search. But if you're looking for a record to which you can chill and not be bombarded with the fabricated pop lifestyle, then look no further. The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul gives us an honest glimpse of her world.

Long live the Queen.

Rating: 3 1/2

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