Mary J. Blige

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Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Growing Pains is Mary J. Blige’s third December release in three years, following 2005’s The Breakthrough (which, true to its title, converted Blige’s R&B dominance into pop prestige) and 2006’s Reflections: A Retrospective (which reminded listeners of what an accomplishment R&B dominance is). Though its appeal has proved durable enough to outlast the record industry’s obsession with release-date strategy—The Breakthrough’s “Be Without You,” for example, occupied prime Billboard real estate well into 2006—Blige’s music is ideally suited to this holiday-season launch pattern. Where she used to sing about her romantic tribulations over gritty soul-hop tracks, these days she mostly gives voice to the sort of cushy devotional pledges and self-help maxims that boost rentals of Love Actually every Christmas.

Blige’s second-act triumph is that she hasn’t allowed emotional stability to compromise the depth of feeling in her music. Growing Pains isn’t as solid as The Breakthrough (or at least it doesn’t seem so now; check back in eight or nine months, after it’s become part of the cultural fabric). But its highlights prove that scaling the Top 40 softened her about as much as getting married did: In lead single “Just Fine,” Blige evinces real joy in admitting to finally liking what she sees in the mirror, and in “Grown Woman” she claims rather convincingly that she wears her Seven jeans—not the other way around. Stay merry, Mary.

—Mikael Wood

Growing Pains (Geffen)

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