Geffen prez Jimmy Iovine has cooked up synergistic film vehicles for label stars Eminem, Gwen Stefani, and 50 Cent. But last month’s news that “Undisputed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” Mary J. Blige would star in an MTV biopic of High Priestess of Soul Nina Simone suggests hubris. Nina started out as a classical pianist, and even at its most intimate her morally convicted music was informed by time spent on the political front lines. The famously untrained Mary’s done her best work staring in the mirror, refashioning r&b’s cosmic themes of suffering and redemption into workaday self-help affirmations of healing, reinvention, and closure. Marketing herself on The Breakthrough as a seen-it-all guru for the united association of jilted sisters, Yonkers’s favorite daughter joins will.i.am to rework Nina’s epochal 1965 “Feeling Good” into “About You,” a so-so self-esteem ditty about her newlywed nirvana with producer-manager Kendu Isaacs. The summer mix-tape hit “MJB da MVP” is a chronological rehash of her 14-year career set adrift on a chugging The Game sample. No soul singer has referred to herself in the third person more obsessively than Mary.
Exec-produced by MJB, The Breakthrough improves on 2003’s Diddy-helmed misfire Love & Life but lacks the character of 1999’s eclectic Mary. Rodney Jerkins’s militant “Enough Cryin” and Raphael Saadiq’s vintage “I Found My Everything” exemplify the album’s robust songwriting. But Mary’s jones for hermetic, clinically slick production values doesn’t complement her soul-baring aura. DJs like Thunderpuss and Hex Hector figured this out years ago when they began remixing her hits, transforming them into pulse- pounding 130 bpm emancipation anthems in the vein of “I Will Survive.” I’ve long wished that, after a lifetime of tepid crossover bids with the “credible” likes of Clapton, Rod Stewart, and U2 (present here on a studio version of their Katrina-relief “One”), Mary would “break through” by rocking more aggressively. The head-banging vamp that climaxes 2001’s “No More Drama” remains her most electric moment.
Judging by The Breakthrough‘s pricey cover art—blue-bleached portraiture recalling Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth on the front, Yves St. Laurent–meets–Cleopatra Jones pantsuit bling on the back—Mary’s still juggling the most surreal version of self- involved introspection and extroverted gloss this side of O magazine. Skip Nina: As the most glammed-out solipsist in popular music, Mary should star in her own life story.