September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Mary J. Blige (MCA)

With her husky, often raw, always richly expressive voice, Blige brings soulful passion to a genre—modern R&B—that, popular as it is, is more often imbued with fabricated emotion and formulaic musical arrangements. A singer-songwriter who made her debut in 1992 with What’s the 411?, an album that wed R&B’s more traditional vocal style to rap’s hip-hop beats, Blige makes up for any technical failings—her voice sometimes goes a bit flat—with heart-on-her-sleeve intensity. On this wonderful collection (her fifth album), Blige proves herself the equal of the Queen of Soul in a duet with Aretha Franklin on the you-go-girl ballad “Don’t Waste Your Time.” On “Not Looking,” a searing ballad about fickle lovers, she duets with her ex-boyfriend K-Ci Hailey (of K-Ci & Jojo). “Deep Inside” finds Blige ruing the price of fame. The tune, based on the piano riff from Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets,” features John himself on keyboards. Throughout, Mary unfolds like a road map of the singer’s own emotional journeys.

Bottom Line: Another jewel in a soul royal’s crown

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