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Mary J. Blige

Growing Pains (Geffen)

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It's always been easier to admire Mary J. Blige's backstory than her backing tracks. She's the premier female soul singer of her generation — even though she rarely receives the musical support that her terrific voice and storytelling deserve. In an urban world where respect for melody has all but vanished, perhaps classic songs aren't necessary anymore. Blige's fans certainly don't seem to mind.

Growing Pains is the sound of Blige settling in: She's more comfortable with her voice, her material, and herself than she's ever been. Even with an abundance of A-list producers — Jazze Pha and Bryan Michael Cox among them — the tunes easily fall under the spell of Blige's direct, no-nonsense vocals, which would rather issue admonitions ("Get your runway stride," she sings here) than reveal old scars (see her last few albums). Only the sharp edges of Pharrell's jittery "Till the Morning" stand out among the typically subtle, craftsmanlike R&B. The single "Just Fine" sums up Growing Pains: It's a celebration of life's small pleasures, and like so many Blige sides, it gets over on emotion rather than hooks. The difference is that this time around, it's all about contentment, not resentment. It's hard to deny Blige that pleasure.

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