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Overseen by Blige and Kirk Burrowes, the selection of producers here and grooves unite in a way that few of her albums do. It is a mixture of the composite and the post-modern, and it is, of course, unafraid to parade its bling.
Opening with the Lauryn Hill-produced All That I Can Say, Mary at once demonstrates that Blige, who had then been a star for best part of a decade, could still keep and rise above the company of the hottest current artists.
Sexy takes Michael Jackson’s I Can’t Help It and fashions a woozy, off-kilter vibe. Deep Inside features a re-recording of Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets, with John slamming away at his piano like he’s having the time of his life. It is absolutely infectious, and one of the standouts of Blige’s career.
Beautiful Ones, produced by Rich Harrison, then still to break through courtesy of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love, takes a sample of guitarist Earl Klugh’s version of Bacharach and David’s April Fools and supports an incredibly passionate delivery from Blige. Don’t Waste Your Time, a duet with Aretha Franklin, is a beautiful meeting of minds.
One of Aretha’s old duet partners, George Michael, turns up on the spirited cover of Stevie Wonder’s As, which appeared on European editions of the album. It is tribute running riot, with Michael attempting to dazzle in Blige’s company. However, the moment she opens her mouth, he is vanquished. The song gave Blige her then-highest UK chart placing (four), and paved the way for the album to break into the UK top five.
A huge star for two decades, Mary J. Blige may not have had the ostentatious career climaxes of other artists, but has created a steady, consistent and often astonishing catalogue. Mary is one of the most thrilling instalments of this career.
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