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Mary J. Blige

The Breakthrough (Geffen)

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"Went to the edge of the ledge/But I didn't jump." That couplet from "Good Woman Down" gives you the Behind the Music soundbite of Mary J. Blige's career; the artistic dilemma for the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul came after she stepped back from the ledge. Since promising "No More Drama" in her life a few years back, she's disappointed those intoxicated by her public heartache.

Such complaints have ignored a more fundamental problem, though: Few great singers have peddled as much mediocre material as Mary J. in recent years. Whole albums (like her last one, Love and Life) have drifted past without a single decent melody, relying wholly on her singing instead. The Breakthrough is a partial end to that unhealthy dependency; there are no great songs, but several good ones, including her best club cut in ages, the Teddy Riley-sampling "Gonna Breakthrough" and Raphael Saadiq's "I Found My Everything," which gives Blige the Aretha-style epic she's long deserved.

Overdramatic bad habits recur on the U2-assisted cover of "One" and the creepy crawl through the past that is "Father in You." But The Breakthrough finally proves that a happy Mary and an artistically successful Mary aren't mutually exclusive. And that's something of a breakthrough too.

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