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For Blige, time to give back

POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

December 11, 2005|Natalie Nichols

Mary J. Blige

"The Breakthrough" (Geffen)

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A new Mary J. Blige album always means a briefing on where the queen of hip-hop soul is in life, and this time -- after jettisoning the drama and embracing good fortune -- she's all about epiphanies. Such numbers as "No One Will Do" and "About You" follow the upbeat mode of 2003's "Love & Life," not so much revelations as stop-to-think appreciations of true love. She also emphasizes the spiritual in a version of U2's "One," teaming with Bono amid a gospel-style chorus.

Blige self-indulgently lets many songs on "The Breakthrough" (due in stores Dec. 20) run too long but keeps her sound fresh with the help of such producers as Rodney Jerkins, Will.i.am, Raphael Saadiq and Jam & Lewis, adeptly weaving beats and live instruments, vocals and rapping, melody and rhythm in configurations alternately stark and lush.

Happy she may be, but, like the hip-hop Oprah, the singer-songwriter is compelled to give back, sharing the sort of clear-headed realizations that came as she traveled from rough Yonkers childhood to pop superstardom.

Some are lighthearted, such as "MJB Da MVP," on which she sings about her journey over the Game's "Hate It or Love It." More seriously, the sweeping R&B ballad "Ain't Really Love" refutes a relationship with a cold, abusive man. The driving '70s funk anthem "Good Woman Down" underlines the urgency in her heartfelt soul cry that she was once troubled too but look at her now.

These personal insights never feel pat, but the syrupy "Father in You," explaining that she didn't have a daddy's love so she needs it from her man, is a bit icky.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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