"I'm the soul hip-hop queen, and I ain't goin' nowhere," sings Mary J Blige on The Breakthrough, and she's not wrong. Free of the spoken interludes that spoilt 2003's Love & Life, this eighth album may be her best, the most vivid realisation of her gripping, confessional style. Unlike with most R&B divas, you get the impression that Blige's songs here are rooted in reality, not formula.
That's due in large part to her compelling delivery, the tone and timbre of which recalls Aretha Franklin on tracks such as "Can't Hide from Luv" and the symphonic slow-burner "I Found My Everything". She's the only singer of her era who can seamlessly combine classic gospel-soul's rawness with more clinical modern R&B - as illustrated by the ease with which her voice assimilates the bruised hope lent by the Nina Simone sample in "About You".
Other voices would be intimidated by the association, but Blige's operates on equal terms. Her lyrics draw on her assertive attitude, reclaiming mistakes from shame in "Take Me as I Am", dumping a lover in "Ain't Really Love", and tracing need for male affection to lack of a father in "Father in You", before a duet with Bono on a version of U2's "One".
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