Eight albums into her career and comfortably settled into married life -- and, for the most part, herself -- Mary J. Blige continues to prove her versatility and strength, building off 2005's The Breakthrough, but not copying from it. Her increased self-confidence, some of which comes from confessing her all-too-human flaws, makes Growing Pains a mature, polished, and utterly professional set of well-crafted songs. Blige, as always, is in great vocal form: her clear, distinctive voice carries the record with its dips and swoops and cries, but the embellishments never get in the way of melody, never replace the meaning of words with excessive vibrato or melisma. Musically, in fact, the album takes an even greater step toward pop (foreshadowed, no doubt, by the cover of U2's "One" on her previous release), with songs like "Fade Away," which borrows heavily from '80s pop, and "Talk to Me," which is informed by classic soul and uses an Emotions sample underneath the guitars and keyboards, helping to set the overall tone. Blige certainly hasn't lost her title of Queen of Hip-Hop Soul -- the opening, iTunes-sanctioned track, "Work That," is all swagger and affirmation with a great urban beat, the Neptunes-produced "Till the Morning" is funky and warm, and "Stay Down" takes a look back at mid-'90s R&B with rambling lyrical lines, including a fantastic reference to The Jeffersons, but she's opened herself up to more styles here, and successfully. She has been able to do what few others before her have: cater to her crossover audience without losing the essence of what she really is and where she came from, and so all of Growing Pains, from its upbeat beginning to its reflective, personal ending (though the last track, "Come to Me (Peace)" is the only real miss on the entire album), doesn't seem forced or calculated. These are strong songs, songs that keep hooks in mind, and while Blige's lyrics can occasionally border on cheesy -- like on "What Love Is," for example -- the very sincere passion she expresses, both in her voice and her words, is enough to erase, or at least fade, the platitudes, leaving only the emotion, the doubt and the love and the insecurity and the confidence and the talent, making for a very complete and satisfying listen. ~ Marisa Brown, Rovi
Track samples provided courtesy of iTunes
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