'One' dynamic 'Breakthrough'

From remaking a U2 hit to adding a dose of Nina Simone, Mary J. Blige's new album charts an exciting new course.

Published December 27, 2005

Remaking U2's One for a hip-hop-savvy audience was a potentially disastrous idea. But on Mary J. Blige's new album, The Breakthrough , that already-perfect pop song is given startling new dimensions. Making like paramours and pugilists, the soulful singer and special guest Bono trade those famously bittersweet lines with genuine passion and fury, two talents slow-building the sexual tension until the song's explosive, and somewhat hopeful, finale.

Blige's smart reworking of One closes out an emotionally thumping album that might be the most inspired disc of her career. Since her auspicious debut, 1992's What's the 411? , the Bronx-born Queen of Hip-Hop Soul has fed her successful professional life with the ugly details of a tumultuous personal one. Drug addiction, financial ruin, a lousy string of emotionally abusive men . . . Blige has persevered by putting her problems to music.

But on the aptly title d The Breakthrough, MJB finds herself in the position of celebrating all the complex angles of a healthy relationship. For a woman who works with messy drama like Jackson Pollock worked with paint, making an album about being content with her love life must have seemed unnatural. But over 16 tracks (plus a party-time "hidden" bonus cut), Blige consistently nails her new groove with catchy choruses, big bad beats and that electric all-world voice. No more drama? No big deal.

The smooth, shuffling No One Will Do , a '70s soulful head-nodder that kicks off the album, is a heartfelt dedication to her new love. In another's hands, the song might have come off as gushy or mushy ("It's me and him through the wire. When it comes to love, he delivers.") But Blige has such street-smart presence and that rugged history, you can't deny the track's true heart. When Mary says something glowing about a dude, that's reason enough to listen.

Blige is a tremendous talent, of course, and it's her point-blank honesty that make her such a popular artist among her peers. Besides the appearance by Bono and U2, she gets help from rapper/mogul Jay-Z, who adds swagger to Can't Hide From Luv , in which Blige challenges her new love to show her respect. In another cameo, Black Eyed Peas star Will.i.am (and a ghostly cameo from Nina Simone) give the midtempo About You some rich romantic weight.

A few years ago, I reviewed one of Mary's live shows and came away disappointed. She spent more time spewing Dr. Phil-ian bromides than kicking out her hits. But I'm happy to report that even the new self-help songs are sharp and pointed, and avoid cliches. With a big, bad bassline that would give 50 Cent pause, Enough Cryin is a finger-snapping tutorial for any gal looking to kiss off a dopey dude. Baggage, about forgetting past mistakes for the sake of the future, has a sparkling R&B backdrop that's reminiscent of the best of Chaka Khan.

It all leads up to that killer cover of One. Bono takes the first verse, providing curious inflection to that devastating opener: "Is it getting better? Or do you feel the same?" (U2 fans will certainly want to study this new reading of a classic.) After he finishes his part, Bono hands the song over to Blige by croaking a throaty, sexy "Mary." There's a confidence to this handoff. He knows that MJB can get the job done.

--Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or 727 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.