September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

Mary J. Blige (MCA)

Album of the Week

A soul singer reaching down deep into her gut and wailing about heartache is nothing new. But testifying about cramps (in “PMS”)? Singing, “My lower back is aching and my clothes don’t even fit”? Now that’s keeping it real. On Mary J. Blige’s fifth studio CD, which follows up 1999’s double-platinum Mary, the Yonkers, N.Y.-born Grammy winner continues her growth as a writer and singer. She ups the rhythmic component of her brand of blues on such upbeat, uptempo tracks as “Dance for Me,” “Beautiful Day,” “Keep It Moving” and the thumping, bass-enhanced first single, “Family Affair,” a club-ready cut that implores listeners to hit the dance floor, “let loose and set your body free.”

Still, in trademark style, Blige wraps her emotionally raw alto around such retro-soul ballads as “Testimony” and the string-laden “Never Been” (written and produced by Missy Elliott). The title tune, an impassioned, gospel-tinged roof-raiser, is cleverly built around the theme from the soap opera The Young and the Restless. With self-affirming lines like “No more pain/ No more drama in my life,” it’s equal parts Oprah and Aretha—and, as a result, all Mary.

Bottom Line: Hail, Mary!

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