MUSIC: CD REVIEWS - CD OF THE WEEK

MARY J BLIGE: MARY

(MCA)

With her raw, earthy tones, Mary J Blige has the most distinguishable voice of all the current generation of American soul singers. Her diva credentials are impeccable. She started her musical career singing in the church choir in the Bronx at the age of seven and, steeped in the soul music of her mother's generation and the hip-hop of her own, she quickly and deservedly became known as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Mary, the multi-platinum singer's fourth album, is designed to establish her popularity in Europe. It's a slick, seamless tribute to all her influences, produced with the help of a few friends. Lauryn Hill of Fugees fame wrote the opening track and current single, "All That I Can Say". There is a superb version of "As", the Stevie Wonder classic that Blige sings as a duet with George Michael. (Incidentally, this song was dropped from the US version of his Greatest Hits album following his unfortunate coming-out). She duets with Aretha Franklin on "Don't Waste Your Time" and her "Deep Inside" has Elton John (a big Mary J Blige fan) playing a Benny and the Jets intro. Yet despite the roll call of musical heavyweights, the album lacks the originality that would make it a memorable one. It's almost as if she has become a victim of too much sampling and covers, and I can't help feeling that her special song still has to be written.

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