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A little too much of a good thing

August 24, 2003|Natalie Nichols

Mary J. Blige

"Love & Life" (Geffen)

***

The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul is in love, and bliss fairly oozes from her new album, as every song but the caught-you-cheater kiss-off "It's a Wrap" is stardusted and sexy. Blige also seems reinvigorated by collaborating with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs -- who produced all but one track and co-executive-produced with her -- for the first time since 1994's "My Life."

As an artist, Diddy has been dabbling in dance music, but the skippy-to-industrial beats here serve more as lush rhythm carpets beneath Blige's blend of hip-hop and '70s-flavored R&B-soul-funk, authoritative rapping and salty-to-sweet singing. She effortlessly executes vocal acrobatics that so many younger divas strain vainly to achieve, and her positive messages of self-knowledge, romance and brooking no nonsense feel even more resonant because the insights are hard-won.

Along with banging dance moments ("Ooh!"), seduction tunes ("Willing & Waiting") and sparkly ballads ("Special Part of Me") is the acoustic-driven, India.Arie-like "Ultimate Relationship (A.M.)," which teases listeners with imagery evoking sweet lovemaking before revealing itself to be about Jesus.

Still, 18 tracks are a bit much, and the usual cliches apply, albeit more artfully. Guests include Jay-Z, Method Man, Eve and 50 Cent, lending swagger to such numbers as the stark, Dr. Dre-produced "Not Today." A handful of musical interludes, while not the typical hip-hop-soulster's self-aggrandizing faux phone messages or fake street talk, still help to drag things out well past an hour.

-- Natalie Nichols

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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