SERIOUS SOUL

The Baltimore Sun

Mary J. Blige purportedly loves the woman she sees in the mirror these days. She's newly svelte and outfitted in designer gear from head to toe. She's strong with a bulletproof heart, reinvented - but still, she rarely smiles.

Growing Pains, the title of Blige's new album, suggests that the hip-hop soul queen is still trying to find herself. But while chronicling her struggles in song, the artist is unshakably serious. She seemingly bulldozes through life's struggles, a little scarred but unbreakable. She recounts the tough lessons learned with hardly a trace of irony or humor. Still - after 15 years of lyrical candor about her personal evolution, the ups, the downs, the transcendence - Blige's eyes in promo shots reveal an iron will but no trace of joy.

If you go Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z perform at 7:30 tonight at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Tickets are $49.75-$124.75. Call 410-547-7328 or ticketmaster.com.

The evolution of Mary J. Blige

Over the years, she's gone from a streetwise singer with attitude to an enlightened pop diva belting out "love-yourself" lyrics.

1992: The cover shot of Blige's debut, What's the 411?, helped cement her early reputation as a woman of dark moods. Clad in combat boots and dark shades, during this time she was dubbed the "queen of hip-hop soul."

1999: Collaborating with rock stars such as Elton John and Eric Clapton, Blige adopted a more pop-friendly sound with her album, Mary.

2002: With the release of No More Drama, Blige declared herself a work in progress. The title track, built on a sample from the theme song of The Young and the Restless, became an anthem of personal healing.

2008: On Growing Pains, the singer has gone from "ghetto-fabulous" to smart, uptown chic. Though the look is much softer, Blige's image is still that of the soul singer you don't want to mess with.

[Rashod D. Ollison]

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