No "Pains," no gains for Blige

Sun Dec 2, 2007 1:05am EST
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By Gary Graff

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Mary J. Blige, anointed "the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul" in 1992, is on a 15-year multiplatinum run as one of the most electric performers in the urban world, with a wide-ranging crossover base that straddles the R&B, hip-hop, pop and even adult contemporary markets.

Her last two studio albums, 2003's "Love & Life" and 2005's "The Breakthrough," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Even last year's "Reflections -- A Retrospective" opened in the top 10.

One-upping all that is the challenge Blige and Geffen Records face as her new album, "Growing Pains," nears its December 18 release. The Bronx-born singer/songwriter's ninth album is already stirring things up with the uptempo single "Just Fine."

Blige said, "I started out with this concept of growing pains because that's how I was feeling during the (2007) Grammys: 'Am I good enough for this; do I really deserve all this in my life?' But something in my head said, 'Yes, you are. Now you're forced to rapidly grow up in this area in order to achieve and get the things you want."'

Featuring collaborations with Ne-Yo (who wrote the track "Fade Away" from a poem by Blige), Timbaland and Akon, among others, "Growing Pains" finds Blige coming to terms with her success, particularly in the wake of the last album's three Grammy Award wins.

Hers has been a hard-fought battle, through well-chronicled personal travails in romance and substance addictions.

"This is just the work to get to that part -- where nothing bothers you and nothing is stressing you out," said Blige, who also gets help from rapper Ludacris on "Grown Woman" and adopts her strident Brook-Lynn alter ego on the track "Nowhere Fast." "That's where I'm headed and that's where I am, but there's a whole other level of that that I have to get to. That might take a lifetime, but that's where I'm headed."

FEELING THE BEAT   Continued...

<p>Mary J. Blige performs "Just Fine" at the 2007 American Music Awards in Los Angeles, California November 18, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Blake</p>