On her eighth album, Mary J. Blige continues the ascent from Queen of Hip-Hop Soul to the People's R&B Diva. Building on the ardent self-revelation of 2005's "The Breakthrough," a celebration of the artist's hard-won happiness, "Growing Pains" traverses a panoply of desires and dramas that reveal the awkward but unavoidable reality of the album's title.
If finding peace of mind was tough, she's here to tell us, hanging on to it is a real trick. Hats off to Blige for her willingness to train a light on the blatant contradictions that define us, especially in relationships, and particularly in a genre littered with airbrushed emotions.
The album's first two singles are commanding anthems: "Follow me follow me follow me/ Be yourself," she decrees on rousing "Work That." "Keep your head up high/ In yourself believe," she instructs on jubilant "Just Fine." The message is clear: be strong, independent, be yourself. Then in the space it takes to divide two tracks, Blige slips into a needy slow-jam. "I want you to rescue me," she pleads in "Feel Like a Woman." Whoa. What happened to self-determination?
From a less-sincere artist, the sudden switch from empowerment coach to vulnerable lover might feel disingenuous. But revealing her weaknesses is Blige's stock-in-trade, and on these 16 tracks she aimed to paint a 360-degree portrait - bumps and bruises included.
She hired quality help: Among Blige's co-writers and producers are Tricky (of "Umbrella" fame), the Neptunes, the Norwegian hit machine StarGate, Ne-Yo, Andre Harris and Vidal Davis, and Brian-Michael Cox. One of the collaborators recruited from 2005's "Breakthrough" team, Cox is responsible for the new album's weakest links: the numbing sermon "Stay Down" and midtempo throwaway "If You Love Me." Misplaced loyalty may be one of our heroine's flaws, perhaps unintentionally on display here.
Blige infuses sensuality with fierce pride on "Grown Woman," with a guest spot from Ludacris to match, and gets real about romance on "Roses," a stern reminder that "it ain't all candy/ This love stuff is demanding." For levity, she teams up with Usher on "Shake Down," a whimsical come-on. And Blige glows on a clutch of searching songs that are packed into the pensive back end of the album.
"Take one more look/ Past my celebrity/ That's where you'll find the real me/ To you do I still look complete?" she wonders on "Work in Progress (Growing Pains)." She may never get a satisfying answer, a scenario Blige ponders in "Smoke," a luscious, filigreed piano track.
After all the sermonizing and confessions, the idea that we have to learn to live without clarity may be Blige's most arresting, and galvanizing, message. "No one really knows anything about it," she sings on "What Love Is," sounding more determined than confused.