Soul diva Mary J Blige may be just be the Aretha Franklin of our generation. It sounds somewhat disturbing on paper, but she’s definitely earned her stars and stripes. With honorary nicknames like Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and Empress of Soul already perched to her biography, the 43 year-old Bronx singer has probably been the most important force in music history to keep the soul music genre alive. So far, she has racked up nine Grammys and released several best-selling albums that have already been classified as “classics” by a world of critics. Topping off the grandeur, her vocal instrument has improved since she left behind a world of alcohol and drugs. She’s cleaned up her act and has taken on the spiritual DNA of Aretha by drawing closer to Christianity. For some, that bit of news could be what’s to blame for the disappointing performances of Blige’s latest albums.
Her last three albums – all gold-certified – are considered modest successes when compared with the heavyweight platinum-certified releases from the ‘90’s and 2000’s. Despite the upgrade of her vocal chops, Blige has lost some of her pop appeal with “Just Fine” missing the Top 20 and 2011’s “Mr. Wrong” from My Life II barely reaching number 87 pop. And her safe, AC-fitted, David Foster-produced holiday album may have literally supplied her fan base a “blue Christmas.”
Hoping to get her back on track, Blige recently joined with rising UK crooner Sam Smith on a cover of his explosive gospel-tinged hit, “Stay With Me.” And, now she’s going the soundtrack route, performing all of the material on Steve Harvey-inspired film Think Like a Man Too. The latter seems to be the proper way of restoring some connection with her weary Stans and long lost detractors. As if she was dropped into a vat of old school R&B, the soundtrack for Think Like a Man Too feels upbeat, lively and outshines the moods heard on her last two full-length albums.
Although the album breaks out with a trite copy-and-paste revision of Shalamar’s ‘80s jam, “A Night to Remember,” a cluster of original tracks composed and produced mostly by Tricky Stewart and The-Dream surrounds Blige. “Happy” singer Pharrell Williams appears halfway into the slick rhythmic track of “See That Boy Again,” but it’s quite obvious that she’s a brute force all on her own. With her mighty ad-libs and soulful belting, the track transforms into a new millennium sequel of “You Remind Me.”
A prominent part of the soundtrack is her full-throttle embrace of the trailblazers of the past. “Getting my Diana Ross on/I’m hot, coming out/You got my heart on lock, showing out,” she sings on the ‘90’s throwback celebration of “Moment of Love.” On “Wonderful,” she’s crooning about listening to the Isleys. “Vegas Nights,” her greatest homage to soul music, drops more names than the Commodores’ “Nightshift” and Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” combined: “Just let me get a little Michael, tonight/Get a little Gladys, yeah, alright/Get a little Lionel Richie, Marvin Gaye and some of that Betty Wright/Some of that Otis that we like/Some of that Sam, show you right/ Even Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, James Brown probably tonight.”
To be quite honest, Blige has had better material than what’s being offered her on Think Like a Man Too. Some of the material is quite sappy. That’s just heartbreaking, but she’s having the time of her life here. Even on subpar songs like “Kiss and Make Up,” she’s belting notes as if she’s queen of the night. The greatest thing about this assignment is that it adds yet another jewel in Blige’s crown. Like Aretha did with Sparkle, she has pulled off an interesting motion picture soundtrack all on her own. And, like the film and the lead actors inside it, Blige is well deserving of the marquee spotlight. Recommended.
By J Matthew Cobb