Artist: Mary J. Blige
Album: Growing Pains
Record label: Geffen
Reviewer: Alex Thornton
Newsflash: Mary J. Blige can sing her ass off. For years, Mary has been the stick by which all other female R&B singers are measured and she's got fifteen year-old songs that would still be hits if they were released today. It seems counter-intuitive that Mary would still have a reason to name an album Growing Pains, but as she gets closer to the "semi-retirement" career phase where she no longer needs new songs to sell concert tickets, she does in fact seem to struggle to grasp her current duties are as the still-reigning Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
To be specific, for all her ability, today's Mary J. Blige spends entirely too much time not actually singing. "Work That," is exactly what's become all too common for Mary's recent work; it's generally likeable, but not very good. Rather than a real melody, Mary falls back on sing-songy rapping (see also: R. Kelly). Mary has always been billed as a bridge between Hip-Hop and R&B, but whereas you could play the vocal from "Real Love" on a piano and still have a good song, "Work That" would be a repetitive bore. "Shake Down" (with Usher) has "hit single" written all over it, but again, doesn't really have much in the way of melody, just more talk-singing that isn't unpleasant so much as lazy.
At this stage, Mary should be making her own path but instead we get tracks like "Stay Down," which was seemingly either originally written for Ciara or at least with her in mind. She gets a little closer to an appropriate evolution with "Till the Morning" or "Talk to Me," but they lack the sincerity that's always been the dividing line between the best and worst of Mary.
She sings that she could never be "Hurt Again," and while we're all happy Mary's exorcised her demons, it seems harder for her to find a place in her heart to sing from. Next time around, Mary really needs to find one or two specific producers that she can really spend time with, work on the entire album with them alone and get her focus back. As an artist who gets by on actual vocal talent rather than gimmicks and dancing, it would be nice if Mary never really threw in the towel for good, but now more than ever, it's time to embrace quality over quantity.