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Mary J. Blige, "Stronger with Each Tear" (Geffen) [2 STARS out of 4]

The personal travails that once characterized the career of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul may now be in the distant past, but that hasn’t made Mary J. Blige’s familiar themes of self-empowerment and transcendence through struggle any less effective on recent releases. In fact, the relatively happy and healthy artist behind “The Breakthrough” (2005) and “Growing Pains” (2007) arguably held out the hope that if she could survive and thrive, her listeners could, too, no matter the circumstances.

The problem with the singer’s ninth studio album isn’t that there’s no more drama in Blige’s life or lyrics. It’s that the unadventurous, overly fussy and pandering productions don’t provide the setting that her heartfelt vocals deserve.

“Never let a girl cook in your kitchen,” Blige sings with a wink, but Tricky Stewart and the Dream, the sonic craftsmen behind “Kitchen,” never turn the heat up the way they should, instead delivering a groove that would have been more appropriate for lightweights such as Alicia Keys or Joss Stone. Stargate, Ne-Yo and Polow Da Don fare no better, and on the single “The One,” Darkchild even makes the absurd mistake of turning up the Auto-Tune.

Blige only really finds a groove worthy of her talents during the old-school slow-burn of the closing track “I Can See in Color,” produced by Raphael Saadiq and appearing on the soundtrack of “Precious.” Longtime fans will find other moments of pleasure on the disc, but this is the tune that will renew their faith–and leave them wondering what an album-length collaboration between Blige and Saadiq could be.