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Mary J. Blige delivers lackluster effort with holiday album

Kevin C. Peterson

Mary J. Blige is not what she used to be.

Over the two decades that she has been performing urban American music, Blige has gradually retreated from the edgy inner-city grooves of the neo-soul sound most popular in the middle-to-late 1990s to sing for a mostly mainstream audience — slowly expanding her listenership and giving herself wider appeal and access to a broader, mostly white, public.

When she first arrived on the national stage in 1992 with her breakout hit, “Real Love” the bronze-hued Bronx native was hailed as a ghetto-gritty upstart, relentlessly finding her own way in the black music industry dominated at the time by West Coast gangsta rappers N.W.A on one end, and the smooth East Coast ballads of Philadelphia’s Boyz to Men on the other.

Blige’s move to the comforting and financially rewarding musical center seems purposeful, beginning around 2002 with “What’s the 411?,” an album that featured the hit song, “No More Drama.” From then, she has made a successful career at publicly documenting her harrowing journey from childhood molestation, drug addiction, domestic violence abuse and depression.

Album titles “Growing Pains,” “Stronger With Each Tear,” and “My Life, The Journey Continues,” vividly tell Blige’s painful personal narrative — delineating her emotional middle passage, giving the public full view to her inner anguish, all intended to be anthems of affirmation.

No step toward the bright klieg lights of American acceptance is more demonstrable than the release of Blige’s holiday season album, “A Mary Christmas.” Disappointingly, it is a mostly maudlin recording replete with trite treatments of songs delivered in front of vacuous strings accompaniments and very little vocal imagination.

What Blige was in her searching and earnest prime years is reduced to this uncheerful collection of songs — not because she has lost any talent, but because she has sacrificed her certain and confessional voice to perform songs that don’t fit her brand and which are not equal to her large emotional ability to communicate the loss of love, friendship, distress and suffering to mainstream female audiences.

Blige, as most people who have followed her career know, possesses irrepressible verve, which gives her performances high energy and provides for her fans avenues of catharsis that they can truly relate to.

Yet, what is delivered in her songs on this album lacks an authenticity for which she has generally been known and mostly adored.

Her rendition of “Little Drummer Boy,” is pedestrian, lacking a sympathetic relationship to the power of the lyrics.

Her interpretation of “My Favorite Things,” from “The Sound of Music” production made famous by Julie Andrews, is not well matched for a Christmas album, and is delivered by Blige, with lame, unconvincing sentiment.

While Blige’s “This Christmas” is lifting, having both an upbeat, generative arrangement, her inner-self seems not there.

There have been black performers who have immensely improved the American Christmas song genre, including Nat King Cole’s “Merry, Merry Christmas,” The Jackson Five’s “I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus” and Al Green’s “Glory Glory.”

Tellingly, each of those artists also deftly enfolded into their Christmas song interpretations a tension and creative release that reflected their racial struggle as blacks in society.

Blige, for all that she has gone through — her pain and disappointments, personal setbacks and misdirection — is expected from her waiting audience to deliver something greater than what she produces in this album.

This is simply one not to take home for Christmas.