Since her debut album, "What's the 411?" dropped in 1992, Mary J. Blige has reigned over the world of hip-hop soul like the mean queen she is. With her shades and blond wigs and refusal to crack a smile (in the early days she was so rude to the press, her handlers sent her to charm school), Blige personified "ghetto fabulousness." Some say she helped create the hip-hop soul genre -- certainly, she paved the way for singers like Faith Evans, Monica, Monifah. But none of her imitators have been able to touch her icon status.
With "Share My World," her third effort, Blige appears to be trying to create another category, one that resides between hip-hop and Anita Baker. She has abandoned her famous producer, Sean (Puffy) Combs, creator of Bad Boy Entertainment (and producer of the late Notorious B.I.G.), replacing his vision with one concocted by an array of producers and songwriters, most of them surprisingly adult: Babyface, Mtume (former keyboardist for Miles Davis, and producer for Roberta Flack and the late Phyllis Hyman) and veterans Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Even rapper Lil Kim makes an appearance, as does nasty crooner R. Kelly and young rapper Nas. To be sure, all the songs have a hip-hop beat, but the "mature" additions suggest this was to be her break-out album, where she makes it as a singer, not an icon.
The problem is -- and even her most slavish fans admit this -- singing is not Mary J. Blige's strong suit. She has some pipes, she has attitude and she has an emotional rawness that moves listeners to stand up and yell, "Get it, Mary!" as if she were an intimate friend. But often you can hear her struggling to stay in key. With "Share My World," Blige's rough edges have been so sanded down that the album comes off like day-old seltzer: digestible, but disappointingly flat.
That said, the album is somewhat infectious in spite of itself -- it's
just not up to expectations. The first track, (really the second,
after a tired "introduction" about how great Blige is) "I Can Love
You," approaches the old Mary. Lil Kim's throaty, ultra-rhythmic
rap fits in just right, and it's amusing to hear her try to rap about
romance. Likewise Jam and Lewis' "Love Is All We Need" has
enough of a beat to get your head nodding, just as their
"Everything" (which quotes the old Stylistics' song "You Are
Everything") draws you in with its sheer familiarity. But compare
a new track by Babyface, "Missing You," to "Not Gon' Cry," the
song he wrote for Blige to sing on the "Waiting To Exhale"
soundtrack (and the final cut on "Share My World"), and you get
a sense of what's missing here: The queen may still reign, but she
seems to have lost her heart.