Just what is it with hip hop superstars and their obsession with the answer phone? Countless albums at some point feature an ostentatious flip through the artist's Roladex of celebrity friends/collaborators, who all carefully leave their name along with a message. Have these people been surrounded by minions doing their dialling for so long, that the idea of being able to contact someone even if they don't pick up is still a novelty?
Clearly not. It's just another excuse for a big-up in the genre that invented the term. Mary J Blige, however, has a legitimate creative reason to open her sixth studio album with a recorded message from Mr Sean Combs. She's reprising the intros of both her debut album from 1991, 'What's The 411?' and its follow-up, 'My Life', which were produced by P Diddy. Now, the pair have made it a hat-trick.
'Love & Life' cements the MJ Blige/P Diddy working relationship and gold plates its magic. It may not be as thrillingly genre-busting as Blige's debut, but then no one can strike the same match twice, however talented. Neither is there a lazily libidinous, utterly compulsive groove which quite compares with the stupendous, Dr Dre-produced single, 'Family Affair' (from the previous 'No More Drama'), but the LP does mark a welcome return to the punchy, thickly rolling, sensually flowing style of Blige's first two albums, which put her stamp so indelibly on the hip hop/R&B hybrid.
Blige has never simply delivered vocal gymnastics over formulaic, booty-shaking beats and 'Love & Life' both throws her classic, Motown leanings into sharp relief and refines her filtering of musical history. The super-schmoove 'Willing & Waiting' harks back to late-period Supremes via Jacko's 'Off The Wall', while on the mighty, Dr Dre-produced 'Friends', Blige combines Aretha Franklin's soulful depth with the belting, tonsil-tearing power of Tina Turner.
Dre joins an impressive roll call of guests: Jay-Z; Method Man; 50 Cent; and Eve, who helps turn 'Not Today' into a sleek, TLC-tastic treat. The soul baring and ghost exorcism which marked 'No More Drama' is almost entirely absent, save for 'It's A Wrap', where Blige talks about escaping an abusive relationship. It's something she knows plenty about, along with drink/drug dependency and depression. 'Love & Life' suggests "the queen of hip-hop soul" is truly now at the top of her game.
It's great to have her back.