By Mark Guarino
On the opening seconds of “The Breakthrough” (Geffen), the seventh album from Mary J. Blige, there are scratches from a vinyl record spinning on a turntable. Through the fog of the antiquated technology is something warm and nostalgic: the harmonies of the O’Jays, the old school vocal group. Then, electronic beats interrupt, transferring the vocals into the modern day.
The arrangement neatly sums up this 34-year-old singer who since 1992 bridged the personal human torment of R&B with the hard electronic swing of hip-hop. In an era where singers are often judged by their stylists, celebrity romances or highly publicized meltdowns, Blige has sidestepped those public relations maneuvers to create her own genre, one of deep self-confession matched with classic poise.
Yet Blige will never be mistaken for Lauryn Hill, Angie Stone or other high-minded R&B singers whose references are all in a highly idealized past. If Blige fits any mold, it’s of jazz icons Nina Simone and Billie Holiday for the depth of anguish that is ingrained in the music. Yet she is perfectly able to spar at the microphone with a wide range of contemporaries, from 50 Cent to U2.
In stores this week, “The Breakthrough” might surprise long-time fans for a few core reasons. The first being, Blige is happy. For a singer who has long sung survivor’s tales from a riveting first person perspective, on this album she directs the songs to other women scorned by abusive fathers and lovers. “My sisters, my troubled sisters, this is my gift to you,” she sings on the affirming “Good Woman Down,” a dizzying track meant to console. “I still have troubles too/you’re not alone,” she speaks at the end.
With these songs, her legion can see the outcome of such hard-earned faith. The bulk of “The Breakthrough” is bliss. The upbeat hooks of “No One Will Do” accompany a lyric celebrating a chaste lover (“when it comes to love, he delivers,” she sings). “Gonna Breakthrough” takes that ecstasy straight to the party. Encouraging anyone within earshot to dance, Blige promises she’s going to “take you where it feels so good.” She’s followed by Brook, her rapper alter ego (the other revelation here), who leads a nonsense cheer, returning straight back to the pop hook.
That type of energy is infectious and carries through much of this heavily pop album. Some songs open up in layers. On “Take Me As I Am,” it takes a few listens to hear how the overlapping vocals create the illusion of the voices fighting for attention in her head. “Ask her how I know ‘cause she is me,” she sings. Other songs are more immediate, such as the strutting pop of “MJB Da MVP,” with 50 Cent adding to the bouncing chorus.
Her hip-hop inclinations lead Blige away from her wisest tendencies. At over 72 minutes, the album’s more-is-more formula only works to camouflage the best she has to offer. The most glaring misstep is the halfway point of “MJB Da MVP,” where she stops the song to declare her greatness and gratitude for her supporters. Acknowledging that her public is probably tired by this convention tediously overplayed by most rappers, she delivers her haters a preliminary kiss-off, saying that they can “hate it or love it.”
The payoff is in her vocal instincts. Old School testimonials like “I Found My Everything” and “Father in You” — delicately spare, even with strings — are sublime. When Blige strips the production down to what is her true essence — proclaiming feelings straight from the gut — she owns anyone within earshot. That’s exactly what happened during the televised Katrina benefit from last fall, when she outshined Bono in a performance of “One” with U2. That live track ends “The Breakthough.” On a song aiming for world harmony, Blige turns it inward so it becomes a personal plea from one wounded soul to another. Putting Bono to the sidelines is quite a feat, but making his song even more tangible is major.