When you reach the legendary status of a Mary J. Blige, you can either make exceptional albums, like The Breakthrough, or just-fine ones, like her latest set, Stronger With Each Tear. Career-tested and past the proverbial struggles and storms, hip-hop’s most soulful belter can still beast on the ballads, though with a modest overall outcome.
That Stronger is a succinct 12-track set helps its case. About half of the melodies don’t instantly excite, particularly on the first few radio-placating tracks, like the AutoTune-enriched “The One,” featuring Drake. An exception is the T.I. collabo “Good Love,” a showstopper built on handclaps and live instruments with a “Got to be Real” feel to it, as Mary wonders: “Am I coming on too strong/Do I make you nervous/Is this the first time you heard this?”
After a few mild adult contemporary joints, the album finds its upswing near the end, starting with the Trey Songz-assisted “Hood Love,” a track originally sung by singer/songwriter Johnta Austin, with a dramatic piano foundation that bears the stamp of a Bryan Michael Cox creation. That’s Blige’s comfort zone—smooth tracks, soprano crescendos and a cool refusal of drama.
The Queen is at her grittiest and most feisty, though, on “Kitchen” (helmed by Tricky Stewart and The-Dream, of course), with its R. Kelly-worthy moral tale about a home wrecker who’s “all up in yo’ fridge” with her “eyes on your man, hands on your pot.” Lyrics like these give the album a much-needed zest: “I know a lot of girls that don’t need a man but I need this one/And I know you might need you a man but you ain’t gettin’ this one/See I can have anybody baby I ain’t stressin’/But what I done for him, I consider him an investment.”
MJB mellows out with “In the Morning,” a measured slow jam with a simple sentiment (“Will you love me in the morning?”), while the sparse, nearly acapella “I Can See In Color” finds her stretching her vocals and mmhhmm-ing like only she can. While Mary isn’t preaching heavily about heartache or triumph anymore, given decent direction and songwriting, she’s still got much flavor. —Clover Hope