The late-'90s have been something of a golden period for female-fronted soul/R&B music....

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The late-’90s have been something of a golden period for female-fronted soul/R&B music. Sublime albums from the likes of [a]Lauryn Hill[/a], Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott and [a]Erykah Badu[/a]have revitalised the genre, washing away the histrionic ’80s nightmares of Whitney [I]et al[/I] and initiating a brave, auteurist trend in distinct relief to the formulaic mire of much early-’90s soul.

‘Mary’ sees iconic rap chanteuse Blige, the star of a thousand collaborations (most notably Method Man‘s seminal retool of ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’), refashioning herself in this form. Her duet with George Michael, the ubiquitous (and pointless) cover of Stevie Wonder‘s ‘As’, was a giveaway. Having somewhat conquered the harder-edged world of rap, Blige now has her sights trained on the hearts and purses of the whole wide world. Indeed, the hip-hop itself is almost uniformly rejected in favour of lusciously retro soul stylings, save for some cursory rhymes on ‘Sexy’.

It starts well, no doubt about that. ‘All That I Can Say’ is a perfect, loving pastiche of Wonder’s Moog-powered balladry. It is, tellingly, written, arranged and produced by Lauryn herself. Standing head and shoulders above the rest of the LP, it almost cruelly reveals the distance between Hill, and this pretender to her throne.

Not that ‘Mary’ is a [I]bad [/I]record at all. Sure, there’s the odd ill-advised blunder: courting the gilt-edged rock aristocracy (Eric Clapton guesting on ‘Give Me You’, Elton John pounding joanna on ‘Deep Inside’, based around his own ‘Benny And The Jets’); borrowing from Stevie‘s ‘Pastime Paradise’, when Coolio and LV made it their own with ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ (‘Time’); duetting with a past-her-prime Aretha (‘Don’t Waste Your Time’). But there are also many fine moments, most notably the creamy ‘I’m In Love’, the bionic groove of ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’, the fabulously Philly-esque ‘The Love I Never Had’ (oh yes, this is a [I]gloriously [/I]soppy record).

The problem is, for an LP with such an audacious conceit of a title, Mary‘s vision isn’t inspired enough, unique enough, to make her as [I]important[/I] as Lauryn, as Missy, as Erykah. The aforementioned artists have raised the stakes of modern R&B/soul such that merely more of the same will no longer do. Mary is the first big gun to step up to the plate since their watershed records (save, perhaps, Whitney‘s recent Missy-produced reinvention).

Disappointingly, perhaps inevitably, she falls somewhat short. But it’s a commendable lunge, nevertheless.