Last week Mary J. Blige turned up unannounced at New York's Apollo Theater to perform a duet with Sam Smith, the young British soul singer. The appearance, similar to one Blige made in January with the dance duo Disclosure, made major news online – so much, in fact, that it more or less overwhelmed the other development in Blige's world: the release of her new album.
OK, so that album – the soundtrack to the Kevin Hart comedy "Think Like a Man Too" – may not be considered Blige's proper follow-up to "My Life II … The Journey Continues (Act 1)," her elaborately titled studio disc from 2011. (It follows another stopgap, last year's inevitable holiday set, "A Mary Christmas.")
But unlike the soundtrack to the first "Think Like a Man," which collected songs by Jennifer Hudson, John Legend and others, the new disc is composed exclusively of new music by Blige – 14 songs, to be precise, from one of R&B's biggest stars. And the movie did well in its opening weekend! Yet the accompanying album – a new Blige record in all but name -- seems to have arrived with weirdly little fanfare.
Disappeared too: By Tuesday afternoon, a week after it came out, "Think Like a Man Too" had fallen off the iTunes chart, surpassed in sales by no fewer than three albums related to Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys": that film's official soundtrack, the cast recording from the Broadway show and a greatest-hits set by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, on whom "Jersey Boys" is based.
In a sense, Blige appears to have anticipated such a cool reception: This might be her laziest album ever, from the unimaginitive (if festive) cover of Shalamar's "A Night to Remember" that opens the set to "All Fun and Games," in which she doesn't even bother to tweak the well worn cliché about how everything's good till somebody gets hurt.
Other tracks lack the sharp melodic hooks or the disarmingly agonized vocals that define such Blige classics as "Real Love," "Not Gon' Cry" and "Be Without You." In "Wonderful" she insists, "I never felt so loved" – a recurring theme in Blige's recent work – but summons little palpable relief; the song has something of a self-help zombie vibe.
And yet there's a way in which "Think Like a Man Too" benefits from these low expectations. As the overwrought title of "My Life II" suggests, Blige views her albums as proclamations – official documents designed to advance the epic narrative of struggle and redemption that she's been spinning since her 1992 debut, "What's the 411?" (Even then, she was framing her records as credible sources of information.)
That mindset has resulted in some of the most powerfully unified R&B albums of all time. But it can also be thought to have kept Blige from following impulses that don't quite meet her elevated standards. You always respect Blige more than you do, say, Mariah Carey – even if occasionally you'd rather spend time with Mariah.
Here, though, Blige seems unburdened by that self-imposed pressure, as though the project's in-between status had freed her to try out some things. There are goofy, rubbery disco jams co-produced by The-Dream and a tune in which the singer tells some dude that if he's "looking for that ratchet-ness, don't look my way."
There's "Suitcase," in which Blige lays out her plan to leave yet another no-good man but sets it over an unexpected trap beat. There's even a comically half-baked collaboration with Pharrell Williams, whose considerable star power is one more element that failed to attract attention to this record.
None of this stuff is great; I'd be shocked if any of it ends up on Blige's next hits disc. But it's kind of a kick to hear this avatar of artistic seriousness – the woman Bono once asked to help remake the grandiose "One" – in such a lightweight mode. If only it hadn't blown away so easily.
Mary J. Blige
"Think Like a Man Too: Music From and Inspired by the Film"