Album Review

Mary J. Blige, at full strength

December 21, 2009

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It takes serious hubris to declare “I’m the best’’ 17 years into a career. But dang if Mary J. Blige isn’t right in her self-assessment on her latest, “Stronger withEach Tear.’’ The queen of hip-hop soul splits her loyalty between three masters with the agility of a gymnast, but she manages to hold a mood with seamless transitions between each.

The call to the dance floor comes early, often, and irresistibly. “The One’’ boasts the choppy funk signature of Rodney Jerkins. Akon helps MJB get crazy in love on the shuddering “Tonight.’’ And T.I. offers up an uncharacteristically playful rap on the Ne-Yo-penned “Good Love,’’ which is all exuberant horns and crisp harmonies.

Deliberate, midtempo pop-soul songs help you catch your breath, which is all the better to sing along. The highlights include the current single, “I Am,’’ another slice of melodic joy from the golden production team Stargate, and the purposeful “Each Tear,’’ which sounds like a combination of Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin. Blige even makes some of her clunky “you go, girl’’ lyrics - including the line “You’re not a victim/ You’re more like a winner’’ - downright palatable.

The album closes with a one-two punch of simmering, old-school soul tracks “In the Morning’’ and “I Can See in Color.’’ The latter, from the “Precious’’ soundtrack, is produced to raw perfection by Raphael Saadiq. It’s a reminder that Blige gets stronger with each album. (Out today) SARAH RODMAN

Mary J. Blige Stronger withEach Tear