Mary J Blige and Alicia Keys

Growing Pains, and As I Am (Geffen)

Phases & Stages

Mary J. Blige

Growing Pains (Geffen)

Alicia Keys

As I Am (J)

New York City soulstresses born in January a decade apart ('71 and '80, respectively), Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys flex their commercial empowerment in passionate opposition. Yonkers street survivor Blige and Manhattan piano prodigy Keys presently command career-high profiles with voices incapable of unfeeling line readings, though Booker T. & the MGs rather than synthetic New Jack soul should groove both ladies back to the old school, where their voices belong. Blige's desperate search for romantic stability counters Keys' full blush of new connection. Her eighth album since 1992 and first since 2005's Grammy-winning The Breakthrough, the former's Growing Pains starts unsteady, but its heart beats strong and sincere. Million-dollar opener "Work That" updates Motown for the 21st century with a rinky-dink piano figure and Blige's wigged head held high. Entanglements with Ludacris ("Grown Woman") and Usher ("Shake Down") tryst up unadvised, while the yearning "Feel Like a Woman" and its appeal to traditional sex roles feels pat. The succeeding "Stay Down" couches its pleas in experience rather than idealism, however, and "Hurt Again" promises this is the last time, obvious wishful thinking given the song's hook: bald denial. The synthetic funk of "Till the Morning" works best for more submissive bedroom confessions, backup "Roses" whiffing equally needy yet turns vulnerability into resentment ("it ain't all roses, flowers, and poses"), and eventually dominance. It's one of Growing Pain's best, another being "Fade Away," its treadmill tempo riding a straight line groove. The disc then loses steam (nagging "Talk to Me," clouded "Smoke") when it should've lost 20 of its 65 minutes but ends on strong note in "Come to Me (Peace)," a sort of ramped-down antidote to the relative anxiety of the rest of the album. As I Am, Keys' third studio release, pounds and caresses ivory, yet Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder carry equal weight with Streisand and Minelli since the singer soars from a much larger stage. "Superwoman" grasps at Aretha's anthemic heights, albeit the 1980s version. "No One" bottoms out on a plodding beat doubled by synthesizer but loosens superhuman vocal affection nonetheless. "Like You'll Never See Me Again" mushes badly, but "Lesson Learned," a duet with John Mayer, has all the answers in Keys' vocal embrace. She oversells "Wreckless Love," but "Teenage Love Affair," encased as it is in contemporary R&B plasticine, moderns a throwback refrain on the edge of a standard. The "no means yes" of "I Need You," on the other hand, went out with Reagan. That's when she unleashes the choir of her full exhale on "Where Do We Go From Here," a tour de force of feminine grandeur. Closer "Sure Looks Good to Me," the best song on As I Am, cues up a mortal version of "Superwoman," all the more invincible for it.

(Both) ***

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Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys

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