Sunday December 25th, 2005                                                 


New CD's this past week:

- Mary J. Blige - The breakthrough
- Jamie Foxx - Unpredictable

Music news headlines this week:

Mary J. Blige Is Back And Happy

Don't get it twisted: This is the seventh album by the most important and
influential female R&B singer of the hip-hop era, and that's more than 20
years if you're being conservative.
Others had blended hip-hop with R&B before Mary J. Blige stepped on the
scene. ("New jack swing" pioneer Teddy Riley, we will never forget you.)
But Blige was the first singer working in a soul/hip-hop vein who got the
admixture perfect.
Blige's extreme popularity has everything to do with the tone of her
voice. It's not a traditionally perfect instrument, but it's one in tune
with hip-hop's cadences and attack, and it crackles with the echoes of a
hard-lived life.
She also sings with a naked honesty and raw intimacy that's made her the
voice of a generation of black women, rich and poor. (And plenty more who
weren't — you don't sell more than 20 million albums without crossing over
something fierce.) Her early albums — produced by Sean "P-Diddy" Combs
back when we called him Puffy — remain a jaw-dropping fusion of streetwise
beats, raw-nerve soul singing and urban meodrama. Later records feel more
professional but no less emotional. She's loved, she lost, she's suffered,
she's down for whatever — it's all in there.
"In my life, I seen it all and now it's time for me to pass on this
knowledge to you, all my sisters, my troubled sisters, this is my gift to
you," she says on "Good Woman Down" on "The Breakthrough." Perhaps
needless to say, this sort of thing is exactly why those sisters adore
So a largely happy Mary J. Blige is kind of an odd Mary J. Blige, callous
though that is to say. On 2001's "No More Drama," she renounced the drink
and drugs that made her amazingly dark 1994 album "My Life" so powerful.
We've had a little time to get used to the stable Mary, witness 2003's
"Love and Life," a hit-or-miss return to Puff's production.
But on much of "Breakthrough" she sounds positively blissful. So cheery,
she's even cut a cover of "Your Smiling Face" for Crest toothpaste's
"Healthy Smiles" campaign. (You can find it at
Most of "Breakthrough" seems devoted to her husband, producer Kendu
Isaacs. "No One Will Do" is nearly corny ("Seen many men in my time, but
none of them compares to mine"), while the overly lush single "Be Without
You" swears that she won't, belting every urge.
But the beats begin to snap eventually. "Breakthrough" features a host of
producers, including the great Rodney Jerkins, architect of more '90s
divas than a red carpet could hold. "Enough Cryin' " laments self-pity,
while the excellent "Good Woman Down" asserts she's a survivor in ways
Beyoncé hasn't covered yet. She even breaks out the dad issues on the
Freudian "Father in You."
There's also "MJB Da MVP," formerly known as "The remix of the Game and 50
Cent's 'Hate It Or Love It' that's proved more popular than the original."
It's as dramatic a repurposing of someone else's tune since Aretha
Franklin's cover of Otis Redding's "Respect," and it smokes after the
thousandth listen.
As a finale, Blige joins U2 for an intriguing cover of that band's 1990
smash "One," the band's one song that might qualify as a long-term
standard ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," consider yourself
Bono can't quite hit the notes that once rang out on the original, where
Mary is at the height of her power. And it's U2 playing on the track,
which they adjust slightly to bring out an R&B flavor. The flickering
guitar, Larry Mullen's singular semi-rolling drums — it's U2 covering
themselves and finding new crannies in the song. Bono wisely sticks to
choruses, croaking world leader that he is, and lets Blige carry the tune.
No, it doesn't really add anything to the song, but it's the season's best
mash-up. She's happy and she knows it. Her fans will likely clap their

Anthony Hamilton Isn't Worryin'

You could fill a fat paragraph with all the rules R&B singer Anthony
Hamilton has broken.
He's not young by pop standards (34). He's not trendy, either, seldom
using hip-hop elements in his music. And he doesn't present himself as a
sex symbol, refusing to take either the R. Kelly-style bump-and-grind
route or the Brian McKnight adult lover-man part.
Yet Hamilton managed to sell 1.2 million copies of his major-label debut,
2003's ''Comin' From Where I'm From," while scoring three Grammy
nominations and a thick wad of worshipful reviews.
No wonder his new follow-up CD, ''Ain't Nobody Worryin,' " which came out
Tuesday, rates as the most anticipated R&B album of the year.
''I've carved out a little niche for myself," the singer says. ''I knew
that I wanted to touch people in the mainstream, but in a way that's not
so obvious. I found that you don't have to compromise your music to sell."
Not if you're willing to spend more than a decade sticking to your guns,
that is.
Hamilton's early career represents one of the great endurance tests in
recent music history. He had three separate contracts with troubled record
companies in the decade before his breakthrough. That resulted in two
stillborn albums, the second of which, 1999's ''Soulife," only saw the
light of day six years after it was recorded, thanks to the success of
''Comin' From Where I'm From."
Today, Hamilton can afford to be philosophical about his history. ''I had
the chance to let everyone else's ideas about what my music should sound
like fall apart," he says. ''Now I really know who I am."
The assurance shows in the force of Hamilton's singing, as well as in the
rare balance he strikes in his music. Though he retains the pre-rap values
of old soul, his records don't sound retro. They're wholly contemporary.
Some of that stems from their funky instrumentation. Hamilton also credits
it to the urgency of his vocals, fueled by his hunger to make it after so
''My last album was my last chance," he says. ''There's an energy from
that that makes you overlook age."
Hamilton also benefited from a youthful image, bolstered by his
appearances as a guest vocalist on a host of rap songs before his first
album arrived. He sang with everyone from the Nappy Roots and Nelly to
His role on the Nappy song ''Po' Folks" led directly to Hamilton's being
signed by Jermaine Dupri for his So So Def imprint.
Hamilton brings a distinctly Southern sound to all his records. Born in
Charlotte, N.C., he sings -- or groans -- in a gritty voice that could
come only from someone reared below the Mason-Dixon line. ''I got whooped
with a big ol' country belt," Hamilton says with a laugh.
His new songs of the South come with references to preachers, collard
greens, and the kind of large women who unapologetically indulge in soul
food, as on ''Sista Big Bones."
While that song is sure to generate giggles, the singer means it
seriously. ''It's to let women know that there are men out there who
really appreciate a full-figured woman who takes care of herself," he
explains. ''It's lovely to see a woman with a big smile and big ankles and
Not that Hamilton is on the prowl these days. Two months ago, he married
his girlfriend of three years, Tarsha. On the new album's lead single,
''Can't Let Go," he sings about objections some have had to his
"Everybody wants to tell you who to be with," he explains. ''People say,
'Who is she? She's not an industry chick.' But she's a really lovable
woman who's into family and church, and we present ourselves in a way
that's pleasing to God."
Some of God's followers may not be so pleased with another song on the
album: ''Preacher's Daughter" accuses certain pastors of hypocrisy.
''The pastor is somebody you're supposed to look up to," Hamilton
explains. ''But I've been noticing lately more and more of these pastors
have been in the tabloids, jumping out on their wives, or with their kids
getting into trouble. They play like they're more high and mighty. But how
can you call yourself a man when you're not taking care of your family?"
Hamilton sings a lot on the new album about what it means to be a man. To
him, it's about admitting vulnerability. On the most moving track, ''Never
Love Again," he sings in an openhearted falsetto about the raw risks of
He wants it to serve as a message to men. ''We put ourselves in a prison,"
he explains. ''Men have this thing where they feel that if you're
vulnerable, you're weak. But it's not true. Men have been waiting to
exhale for a long time. I'm here to tell them I've got the asthma pump."
Hamilton hopes to take that message to a broader audience in the next
year. Instead of just touring with other R&B acts, he hopes to pair with
the Dave Matthews Band and Santana.
If that broader audience doesn't respond to his message, however, Hamilton
can take comfort in something else.
''Everybody likes to be paid for their work," he explains. ''But if you
chase sales and popularity, you lose what's most important to you."
Namely, your soul.


Kelly Rowland Busy Recording Second Solo Album

With Destiny's Child having called it a career this fall, group member
Kelly Rowland has quickly dived in to work on her next solo album. Among
the collaborators on the as-yet-untitled Columbia set are songwriter Sean
Garrett and Solange Knowles, the younger sister of Rowland's Destiny's
Child cohort Beyonce.
"It has been a very personal album for me," Rowland tells
"It has been one of the best experiences of my life. It's a look into the
past two years, going through different relationships, love and growing as
a woman. It's a soul-searching record. It's really beautiful."
Rowland's ex-group mates will not be far from her thoughts as the creative
process rolls forward. "Michelle Williams is in the studio right now
writing a song for my album," she enthuses. "And I'm going to play all the
songs for Beyonce and see which ones are her favorites. I always look to
her for advice."
The upcoming album is the follow-up to Rowland's 2002 solo debut, "Simply
Deep," which debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart
and No. 12 on The Billboard 200.
Also, a DVD taped at Destiny's Child's July 15 show in Atlanta will arrive
in February. "We have so many funny moments, like bringing guys up in
different cities during 'Cater 2 U,'" Rowland says. "There's a performance
with myself and Nelly. We let you backstage, like right before we go up
the lift. We wanted everybody to be able to see what goes on behind the


Mary J. Blige Joining Essence Music Festival In Houston

Mary J. Blige will perform at the 2006 Essence Music Festival, which is
temporarily moving to Houston as New Orleans continues to rebuild after
Hurricane Katrina.
The annual event, sponsored by Essence magazine, has been held in the
Superdome in New Orleans since 1995.
The 2006 festival will be held July 1-3 at Houston's Reliant Park. Several
concerts, a marketplace and empowerment seminars will be featured. A
portion of the event will be aimed at helping victims of Katrina.
Other performers will be announced in coming weeks, organizers said in a
statement Monday.
Nearly 500 artists have performed at the Essence Music Festival, which has
brought millions of dollars into Louisiana's economy since its inception.


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