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CD Reviews:
Listening Room: Mary J. Blige, Eminem and more...

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2009

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Mary J. Blige

“Stronger With Each Tear”



Mary J. Blige is in a strange place. Nine years ago the aptly monikered “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” declared “No More Drama,” and thanks to what appears to be a strong marriage (to music executive Martin “Kendu” Isaacs), People magazine designation as one of the 100 Most Beautiful People and a string of consistently strong work, that’s been the case. Can one sell the songs without a tortured soul or life-stalling issues? In Blige’s case...yes. The key? She sings — exceptionally well — while her lyrics still manage to latch on to some sort of theme that gives meat to her material. Blige’s focus on her ninth album is maintaining a sense of strength and identity — keep your guard ready, in other words, even when things feel good. So we find the singer reminding her man about her abundant virtues on “I Am” and offering cautious words about letting other women get too close to the “Kitchen.” “The One’s” “got nothin’ on me” swagger, meanwhi of demarcation between Blige and any wannabes, whether they be romantic rivals or musical progeny such as Beyonce, Alicia Keys or Rihanna. And, please, don’t harsh her buzz; as she sings in “I Feel Good,” “Back off of me with the negativity/Don’t want to hear what you’re saying/I want to dance away my trauma/So best get out of my way.” There are plenty of dance partners on the “Stronger With Each Tear” card, too, from guests such as Drake (“The One”), T.I. (“Good Love”) and Try Songz (“Hood Love)” to top-shelf co-writers and producers such as Akon, Ne-Yo, Stargate, Darkchild, Ryan Leslie and Tricky Stewart & The-Dream. But while those folks keep Blige largely in tried and true (but still successful) territory, Blige’s collaboration with Raphael Saadiq — “I Can See in Color,” for the film “Precious” — is “Stronger’s ...” mightiest moment, a smoky, slinky and spare piece that sounds like a 21st century channeling of Billie Holiday and takes Blige somewhere fresh but still fulfilling.


Eminem, “Relapse: Refill”(Aftermath/Interscope) ***

This re-release makes a good thing bigger rather than better — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We expected the Detroit rapper, whose “Relapse” has sold more than three million copies worldwide since May, to come with his promised “Relapse 2;” now that’s on hold until next year, while he fills the current album’s “Refill” edition with seven more tracks, six of which were produced with mentor Dr. Dre. It’s easy to see why these didn’t fit on the original “Relapse,” a highly personal and stock-taking affair after four years away handling drug addiction and other issues; they’re comparatively lighter weight fare, with slasher epics such as “Buffalo Bill” and “Music Box” recalling vintage Slim Shady and “Hell Breaks Loose” aimed squarely at the dance floor. And “Forever,” Eminem’s collaboration with Drake and Lil Wayne, is a little bit worn from its successful ride earlier this year. These additional tracks don’t necessarily vault “Relapse” to another level, bua bit of levity at the end of a largely sober album. Now let the wait for “Relapse 2” begin...

New & Noteworthy:

Ray Charles, “Ray Charles Sings For Lovers” (Concord): Charles’ romantic side is explored on this compilation, which includes his country hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and his rendition of George Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

Detroit Symphony Orchestra, “Ear Mrs. Parks” (Naxos): The DSO and conductor Thomas Wilkins bring to life Hannibal Lokumbe’s oratorio inspired by the live of Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks. The orchestra is joined by vocal soloists Janice Chandler-Eteme (soprano), Jevetta Steele (mezzo-soprano), Kevin Deas (baritone) and Taylor Lee Gardner (child soprano), as well as the Brazeal Dennard Chorale and the Rackham Symphony Choir.

Flaming Lips, “Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’” (Warner Bros.): This recreation of Pink Floyd’s classic album will be availble only on iTunes until Dec. 29, and then at all other digital retailers.

Isaac Hayes, “Isaac Hayes Sings For Lovers” (Stax): It’s not hard to find some love songs in the Hot Buttered Soul man’s catalog. This set’s highlights include two duets with his longtime songwriting partner David Porter.

Dave Matthews Band, “Europe” (RCA): Three CDs (recorded in Italy) a DVD (from London) and a lavish photo book help fans recap DMB’s successful 2009 tour.

Mudvayne, “Mudvayne” (Epic): The hard rockers’ fifth studio album has actually been in the can for the better part of a year and is already tearing up rock radio with “Scream With Me. Check out the cool blacklight-reactive cover, too.

Obie Trice, “Special Reserve” (MoSS Music): The Detroit rapper’s first release since leaving Eminem’s Shady Records camp dips into music he and producer MoSS recorded in the late ‘90s — a stop-gap to tide us over for next year’s “Bottom’s Up.”

New Music DVD: “It Might Get Loud” (Sony Picures)

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