With a melody so flighty it merely refracts through producer Lauryn Hill’s airy groove and wispy scratching, Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Can Say” thrushes and flushes gingerly, even indecisively, barely coalescing as an emotion — let alone as a lead single. Even when the Blige leans into the cut, she sounds a little like someone hovering above her own performance, surveying new environs from an oblique vantage that’s got to be difficult for a diva who’s always defined herself by letting honest power and personality outweigh a relative lack of vocal prowess. “I wish I had the words to tell this feeling that I know so well,” she sings against warm jets of keyboards, waiting to exhale a swell of emotional power that might fill Hill’s low-ebbing tide pools.
But if the track “All That I Can Say” suggests a post-“Miseducation”/-”Baduism” makeover, the overall feel of “Mary” has more to do with capitalizing on the innovations of her imitators than with readapting to make sense of them. The Cesaria Evora-lookin’ Blige on and inside the album’s cover is dressed and photographed to look like she’s weathered decades since the tackily flashy queen of “Share My World” (1997). Her songs echo that choice. The stately, ’70s feel of much of the music on “Mary” — from the florid Stevie Wonder cut “Beautiful Ones” to her dead lock on First Choice’s disco rarity “Let No Man Put Asunder” — suggests Blige has graduated from her role as the big sister of hip-hop-soul to full-fledged matriarch. At her best, her slow, sumptuous record radiates the same sort of wise good vibes and communal integrity that made last year’s brilliant career stopgap “The Tour” one of the great sisterly be-ins of the ’90s.
Unlike Hill, who equates self-awareness with a kind of socio-spiritual and boho-rasta-aesthete transcendence that implies an insecurity with the realities of, well, real life — be it for buppie divorcee or spurned white college girl — Blige keeps things grounded in personal experience. It’s the difference between being self-righteous and righteous, middlebrow and middle-class, and it touches deeply personal music that begs to be abstracted and appropriated by anybody in earshot who needs a helping hand. The most amazing performance here is “Your Child,” on which her boyfriend’s baby’s mother shows up with his kid in her arms and Blige bonds with her, saving her beautifully administered wrath for her prick-daddy in one of the best examples yet of her most wonderful vocal trait — an ability to nuance the physical limitations of her voice to mirror the strain and complexity of the feelings it expresses.
It’s a form-function talent that’s anti-virtuosic, populist and very rare in a divasphere where overpowering talent is taken as the only coin of the realm. So, while Blige knows she can’t touch Aretha Franklin on the Babyface-produced “Don’t Waste Your Time,” she perfectly adapts her vulnerability to the role of a done-wrong woman taking advice from a friend who’s been there a million times, just as her testifying intensity turns the celebrity persecution complaint, “Deep Inside,” into a sweet vision of a non-hierarchical world where she’s “just plain ‘ol Mary” and we’re all just equals. Maybe someday her self-styled teaching-preaching inheritors will finally inherit her down-to-earth maturity.