Very well-known fact about sequels: Except for in very rare cases, they don’t live up to the original. This is true in literature, movies and music. However, generally speaking, with books and film, there’s a continuity from original to sequel (and sequel…and sequel…) There’s a story to follow, characters you have to work with. You can’t just slap a movie together with no attachment to another movie and call it a sequel. Right?

With musicians, that sense of continuity doesn’t have to exist. Jay-Z’s “Blueprint 2” had no real connection to the first “Blueprint,” right? Nor did “BP3” have any connection to the 1st or 2nd one. What I’m trying to say (in this really long, convoluted way) is that Mary J. Blige referencing 1994’s classic “My Life” seemed like kind of a desperate move. With her record sales having declined fairly sharply over her last three albums, giving her sophomore album a sequel 17 years after it released seemed more like “hey, remember me? I made this!” than someone who really wanted to make a creative, thematic follow-up. Throw in almost a year’s worth of delays and a couple of sub-par teaser songs (one of which, thank goodness, is now just a bonus track), and my worry grew.

Turns out my worry was unnecessary-My Life 2 is a fine piece of work that serves almost as a career-encapsulating work. There are hip-hop jams (including the return of Mary’s rapping alter ego, Brook-Lyn), there are the self-help anthems she’s become most famous for, and there are a couple of stunning songs that have a pop/adult contemporary flair.

There’s a huge difference between 23 (which is how old MJB was when My Life was released) and 40 (which is how old she is now), and thankfully, the new album doesn’t regress into the 23 year old point of view. Although a handful of songs (like current single “Mr. Wrong” access the pain and frustration embedded in many of My Life‘s songs, this is the story of a woman who’s scaled the mountain and is now looking over the other side, strengthened by the experience. Of course, another major difference between the two albums is that the first My Life was more or less guest-artist free. This new album shoehorns in Drake, Rick Ross, Busta Rhymes and Beyonce, with Diddy making a cameo at the beginning (and appearing again with Lil Wayne on the bonus version.) Thankfully, most of the support artists acquit themselves well, with the key tracks being the lighthearted “Next Level” (featuring a joyful guest verse from Busta) and “Love A Woman”, a track that actually looks past My Life and actually would’ve fit perfectly on Mary’s debut, What’s The 411? Beyonce co-wrote the song and her guest appearance is appropriately muted and deferential.

Mary has long been vocal about her appreciation of Chaka Khan. She’s covered several of the legend’s songs, performed with her, and even produced her. My Life 2 boasts a cover of Chaka’s smash “Ain’t Nobody” that challenges the original for effervescence. Mary absolutely soars on this record, and there was obviously a good time being had in the studio when this was recorded.

Although the middle of the album sags a bit under a little too much generic songwriting, things pick up with the ballads that conclude My Life 2. “The Living Proof”, the theme song from this summer’s hit movie “The Help”, is a ballad that someone like Celine Dion would rip to shreds. Mary delivers a powerhouse performance, full of grit and subtlety. However, the key track, in my opinion, is the sparse “Need Someone.” Remember the chick that occasionally struggled to remain on key 20 or so years ago? This song showcases a woman who is in perfect control of her voice. If “Need Someone” doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you are dead. Point blank.

Is it the original My Life? No, which is cool for a lot of reasons. I understand the commercial benefits that could be potentially reaped from referencing a classic piece of work-I’m not stupid. And if that gets more people to buy this album, then good for Mary and her folks. However, what’s most important is that My Life 2 is yet another gem in the catalog of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and would be just as good if it was given any other title.

Grade: B+

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