Mary J. Blige: My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act I)

Geffen Records/Courtesy

After 15 years, Mary J. Blige’s 1994 album My Life still stands as the gem of her recording career. Picking up where her debut album — What’s the 411? — left off, My Life helped shape a mature image of Blige, stripping way the MIDI keyboards in favor of the more soulful Mary that still defines her today.

So it’s no wonder Blige would try to recreate that magic with her latest release, My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act I) (an album that should be in contention for the most awkwardly long title of the year). Unfortunately, for listeners expecting Blige’s vocals laced over classic ’90s hip-hop beats, disappointment awaits. Instead, Blige opts for a more club-friendly electronic sound, including a Darkchild-produced cover of Chaka Khan’s classic dance track, “Ain’t Nobody.”

My Life II contains some bright spots, but they’re just too few and far between. The album opens on the right foot with “Feel Inside,” a hip-hop track recalling the best of Blige’s mid-’90s period. Aided by Nas’s guest appearance, Blige builds off the rhymes and vice versa. The chemistry between the two artists also exemplifies how a collaboration should be done, contrasting with the host of other guest spots throughout the album. It’s also nice to see the return of Brook Lynn — Blige’s rapping alter ego — on “Midnight Drive,” proving that if only Blige would just further hone her rhyming skills, she could be a triple threat as a singer, songwriter and rapper.

The real problems with My Life II occur in the latter half of the album, where ballads dominate the record. The raspy power behind Blige’s voice is perfectly suited for soul ballads, contributing to some of her biggest hits to date (“Not Gon’ Cry,” “No More Drama,” “Be Without You”). But here, Blige abandons her soulful side altogether, resulting in a few tracks that may appeal to the adult contemporary crowd. Although it’s nice to hear Mary attempting to broaden her signature sound, this isn’t the direction longtime fans of the artist want or expect.

The biggest challenge for Blige moving forward will be how to remain relevant in an ever-expanding genre of music.  Already, she’s being relegated to “legend” status, making it less and less likely that any serious attempts at redefining herself for a new generation will take place. However, the title of My Life II alludes to the possibility of a series of albums with the “My Life” signature attached. Considering that her voice continues to somehow gain strength with age and each new release, there’s still hope Blige can come back with another classic hip-hop soul album, thereby reclaiming her title of queen of the genre.