Thirty years since her debut album asked the question “What’s the 411?,” and mere days before appearing as the (lone) female in the Super Bowl LVI halftime show, Mary J. Blige proves that the shine on her crown as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul goes untarnished. Her reign is undiminished and even furthered, as there’s a huskier edge than usual to “Good Morning Gorgeous,” her first album through 300 Entertainment, a label where Young Thug and Megan Thee Stallion keep house.
Working in accordance with Tina Turner’s dictum of keeping every sound nice-and-rough, Blige still brings rap attitude to her notably emotive vocal flips, and teams that edge, again, with a ruminatively articulated and highly personalized take on the Black Woman Experience. Call it empowerment. Call it autonomy. As long as Blige can get in the pocket of a track, and live as intimately within the melody as its lyrics exist within her psyche, we’re cool. Welcoming a Murderers’ Row of producers (Bongo By the Way, D’Mile, Cool & Dre, London on da Track, DJ Khaled, etc.) and letting them loose on her thickest track list since 2014’s “The London Sessions” aids Blige in keeping her razor’s edge. For all of her sharpness, there is Blige’s naturally regal elegance to contend with on jazzier mid-tempo cuts such as “Rent Money” and “On Top.”
“No Idea,” written by Blige with Anderson .Paak in his current phase as scratchy vintage-soul purveyor (Silk Sonic), rumbles and hums with deep brass, rolling rhythm, and enough space for its heartbroken vocalist to move with real swagger. “Got me feeling like Janet,” rips Blige before doubling up her own voice and hitting a choice chorus of “No, I can’t tell you what to do / I can’t tell you how to move.” (.Paak returns as Blige’s duet partner on the squelchy ballad “Here With Me,” and as co-producer on the dreamy “Love Without the Heartbreak”).
There are more than a few conversational Blige moments to contend with. (acting gigs in “The Umbrella Academy” and “Lost Ollie” paid off), as many multi-octave Marys converge on the slower “Love Will Never” and its cocktail piano-driven swivel. “Come See About Me,” too, allows Blige to nestle before a piano’s tinkle and a spare percussive clink, and operate smoothly. The story of deception that is “Love Without Heartbreak” (“I don’t know much more of this I can take,” she moans, with both an icy chill and the heated means to melt it) and Blige’s subtle verbal gymnastics sparkles and kicks with its off-key strings, Fender Rhodes runs and woodblock clicks.
Many of the low-key experiments in sound — an open airiness, often oddball instrumental quirks, bluesy vibes — remove Blige from the comfort zone of her Capitol label-era albums, and bring fresh life to her not-so-quiet storming soul.
While the intense low brass of “On Top” threatens to be a Steely Dan track worthy of “The Royal Scam,” the opulent reeds, fulsome French horns and flickering guitars of “Falling in Love” (co-written and produced by London on da Track) could pass for every song on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” rolled into one, with Blige’s luscious vocals rushing at the pace of a Drake. If you’re looking for production surprises to go with those of Blige’s vocals, the synth-phonic sweep of “Need Love” — a duet with an equally breezy Usher — finds the singer in her highest register and most oxygenated whisper working in tandem with the chill of its arrangement. And still, her take on desire and self-preservation is molten lava-heated.
The album’s title track, co-produced and written by its guitarist, H.E.R., is the most devastating test of all: a hot-winded ambient whirr where the blues and gospel act as sand and silt. To this, an echo-affected Blige burrows deep into the dos and don’ts of the self’s rights and wrongs before coming up with a mirror’s daily affirmation, and a damn impactful plea for respect. Brilliant, and over-too-quickly, the slippery tinkle and spinning organ tone of its follow-up, “Come See About Me,” is the album’s smokiest one-two punch.
Even the dub-inflected “Amazing” from Blige and DJ Khaled — complete with his usual boasts and mottos — is different than much of the singer’s work in clipped pop club-hop from her past. While the track doesn’t stand up to the drama of the rest of “Good Morning Gorgeous” in terms of stateliness, it doesn’t have to. Blige sounds more comfortable having a laugh than she ever has — that is true head-back, wind-in-your-hair freedom. That same freedom and unquestioning self-respect is what she was alluding to, 30 years ago, when she wondered out loud about the “411.” The throne’s still yours, Queen.