09/01/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Mary J. Blige (Geffen)
"There's only one Mary, only one Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," says Sean "P. Diddy
" Combs in the intro to Mary J. Blige's sixth studio disc. And he should know. Back when he was Puff Daddy, Combs produced Blige's first two albums, 1992's What's the 411?
and 1994's My Life
. The two reunite on Love & Life
, and while the result falls short of the masterpiece My Life
and even 200l's No More Drama
, Blige and Combs are still a potent pair. Blige, who had been growing more toward the soul side of hip-hop soul, returns to her roots with deft street beats produced by Combs, who adds old-school flavor by sampling everything from Marvin Gaye to Rufus & Chaka Khan. They also bring in guest rappers Eve, 50 Cent and Method Man for three songs, but only the collaboration with Eve, the slinky sister-to-sister jam "Not Today," doesn't disappoint. (It's also the only cut not produced by Combs, but Dr. Dre.) Blige rules the show on tracks like "Ooh!," a classic R&B burner that showcases her from-the-gut vocals. Of course no Blige album would be complete without a killer he-done-me-wrong ballad for the ladies. Here it's "It's a Wrap," on which she once again proves she is the Aretha of her generation.
BOTTOM LINE: Not her best, but still another jewel in Mary's crown.