Mary J. Blige wasn’t ready for a greatest hits moment just yet. By 2005, she was coming off her sixth studio album, Love & Life, an exuberant but untruthful Diddy-helmed affair that Blige later called a misstep. Within two years, her label Geffen had started prepping a legacy project in its wake titled Reminisce, which seemed like a career bow-out for Blige, then 34. She didn’t feel finished and had just, in fact, spent her past three projects introducing the world to a new and freer Mary. She felt confident enough to scrap the greatest hits set and fast-track her next album for a December 2005 release.
At the time, Blige was awash in bliss, two years into a marriage with her manager, Kendu Isaacs, and ready to sing it to the heavens. Though the press described her seventh album, The Breakthrough, as a love letter to him, Blige insisted it was deeper than that. “It’s not just about choosing to be in love with him—it’s about choosing to be in love with myself,” she told Newsweek in 2005. The album reads less as a tribute to him and more like a sermon between Blige and the congregation of women who’ve seen themselves in her over the years. “I’m freeing myself,” she said to NPR in 2006, defining her breakthrough as not just one epiphany but an endless series of revelations. “I don’t think any of us will be free completely. It’s gonna take a lifetime to really get to that point.”
What separates Blige from many other artists is that she is a believable work-in-progress. Every Mary J. Blige album is a chance for her to decompress, reboot, and present a stronger but softer version of herself. And yet, the dominant narrative is that Blige sings better when she’s in despair. Everybody wants her to stay sad for them. “I can make twenty more really depressed albums, but I choose to do something different,” Blige told NPR in 2006, echoing the classic text Sex and the City when a Paris-bound Carrie tells Miranda, “I cannot stay in New York and be single for you.”
After 30 years of being trapped in heartbreak and misery, Blige deserved her redemption arc. Geffen positioned The Breakthrough for success, releasing it eight months after Mariah Carey’s own comeback effort, The Emancipation of Mimi, which proved how much a veteran R&B star could dominate pop with a resilient narrative if they also had a No. 1 hit like the Jermaine Dupri-produced “We Belong Together.” Jimmy Iovine, then chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, commissioned producer Bryan-Michael Cox, who’d co-written Carey’s smash, to replicate a hit for Blige’s album. Relishing the opportunity to prove himself a legit hitmaker outside of working with Dupri, Cox composed the simple, rapturous piano melody behind The Breakthrough’s lead single “Be Without You” in under 15 minutes, then called in his frequent collaborator Johnta Austin, who’d won his first Grammy for writing “We Belong Together.” In a 2007 interview, Austin recalled nearly scrapping the hook for “Be Without You” at first (“We’ve been too strong for too long...”) because he said he’d “never really heard Mary sing a straight-up love song.”
In reality, Blige had a track record of romantic hits—What’s the 411?’s sweet missive “Real Love,” Share My World’s fizzy “Love Is All We Need”—but many of them are more about searching for the right love than finding it. On “Be Without You,” she’s practically levitating. It’s a stunning vocal showcase amid a litany of lyrical vows that capture the ecstasy of the honeymoon phase. The song secured Blige her comeback and spent 15 weeks atop Billboard’s Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart, a streak broken only recently this past May by SZA’s “Kill Bill.” The Breakthrough became Blige’s third No. 1 album and sold 727,000 U.S. copies off the bat, giving her the biggest first-week debut for a woman solo R&B star to date. She scored eight Grammy nominations, winning three, and the album stands as a fitting midpoint in her catalog, an unofficial marker of a more self-actualized Mary, post-No More Drama. That she’s since divorced the “con artist” who inspired some of the album’s cheerier tracks after 13 years of marriage makes the experience all the more rich.
The album opens with a vivid portrait of matrimony and the tender, sped-up wails of a 1976 O’Jays record on “I Swear, I Love No One But You,” set over the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League’s smooth, glistening production. Blige is slick and swooning, praising a new love who’s “just above the best, I must confess the best love that I ever had” and offering gushing metaphors. “About You” is a similarly euphoric ode where will.i.am boldly chops and syncs Nina Simone’s classic, swaggering “Feeling Good” vocals with Blige’s own, turning the song into a stomping, if relatively flat, declaration of loyalty to a partner.
Blige often communicates with her past selves in her music. Here, her use of first, second, and third person in songs feels more prominent. The 9th Wonder production, “Good Woman Down,” addresses listeners directly, extending a hand to the women who remind Blige of a young tragic Mary. The song is a plainspoken survival story about escaping a childhood of abuse only having it spill into her adult relationships: “When I used to see my daddy beat my mother down, down to her feet/I used to say that ain’t gonna never be me,” Blige recounts, her vocals, as always, scratched with disillusion. The reflective gaze is pretty and clearest on tracks like the plaintive ballad “Take Me As I Am” and the standout “Baggage,” where Blige sings about recognizing patterns, over a sprinkling of synths that sound like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis throwing a fistful of glitter over the track: “Don’t wanna make you pay for what somebody else has done to me/I don’t know what to do.”
Blige has described the challenge of being raised by a single mother with tragic clarity. In her self-produced 2021 documentary My Life, she talks about hearing her father’s soul music in the house while growing up in Yonkers, New York, and being particularly intrigued and haunted by the “my life in the sunshine” refrain on Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” Blige recalls, “That record made me feel like I could have something, but I couldn’t get my hands on it.”
The doc is a somber retelling of Blige’s origin story, beginning with the trauma of her dad leaving when she was 4. About three years later, once she moved to the Schlobohm projects with her mom and sister, the violence in the environment started to change Blige profoundly. “I never smiled when I was a teenager… You turn to anything that can numb you from feeling the sadness,” she says later on in the doc, before describing her spiral into alcohol. Her only therapy as a young child was singing into a brush in the mirror.
Then, in 1989, she recorded a demo tape of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up In the Rapture” at a local mall and handed it to her stepdad, Jeff Redd, who routed it to Uptown Records’ late founder and CEO Andre Harrell. He took a trip to the Yonkers project where Blige lived and signed her to his imprint on the spot. It was kismet that Diddy, then an Uptown A&R looking to make a name for himself as Puff Daddy, partnered with Blige and gave her an unofficial title as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, heralding a new flavorful ’90s subgenre. At the time, only Blige could weave the slickness of rap with the emotion of blues so seamlessly.
There’s always been a hint of resentment in Blige’s vocals, and The Breakthrough exorcises that lifelong suffering. On the thumping, Rodney Jerkins-produced “Enough Cryin” and “Ain’t Really Love,” Blige leans into the independence she’s earned, rapping on the former track, even if the flow isn’t as smooth as on What’s the 411? That alter ego also takes over “MJB Da MVP,” a mixtape-esque take on The Game’s breakthrough 2005 single “Hate It or Love It” that was originally intended as a teaser for Blige’s greatest hits album. The song is Blige’s round of applause to herself, reminding listeners of how long she’s been facilitating other people’s breakthroughs. The record could’ve come across as simple rehashing or boasting, but there’s something charming about Blige’s ownership of her influence, knowing how much she rejected it before. When she duplicates Ayers’ “my life, my life, my life” line in the bridge, it’s a touching full-circle nod to her own album, the music she loves, and a young Blige who absorbed the original as an earworm growing up.
The Breakthrough is so self-referential that it almost does function like a greatest-hits record the label wanted. Blige acknowledges the criticism from fans expecting sadness from her, but ultimately she enters a space of self-acceptance that’s carried throughout the latter half of her career. You can hear it in moments like the opening keys of the lavish dance floor cut “Gonna Breakthrough,” which sounds like sunrise breaking through a morning window. Jay-Z plays hypeman on “Can’t Hide From Luv,” a record about mastering and unlearning the art of self-sabotage. And “Can’t Get Enough” is another clear-headed ballad about finding commitment, though it still finds Blige looking for a type of idealistic love that’s like an organ she can’t live without.
Two standout tracks highlight Blige’s imperfect blues voice. The power ballad “I Found My Everything” is one of her strongest vocal performances, a soft, transcendent duet with Raphael Saadiq where his buttery background vocals shine next to Blige, who cheekily sings, “You’ve given me a reason to smile, baby.” Another blockbuster moment comes on the closer “One,” Blige’s searing takeover of U2’s stadium anthem and an example of her ability to personalize a universal record with shades of triumph and torture. Bono steps out and wisely relinquishes the moment to Blige, who sings lines like, “You act like you never had love/And you want me to go without,” with an intensity that suggests she’s feeling the sentiment deeply and adding her backstory on top.
Nearly two decades after its release, “Be Without You” is still listed on streaming services with the parenthetical “(Kendu’s Mix),” a credit to the person who facilitated both the making of the song behind the scenes and Blige’s broader breakthrough. Blige filed for divorce in 2016 and accused Kendu of being unfaithful, demeaning, and greedy in their relationship. She’d experienced alcohol and substance abuse, but she said it was divorce proceedings that left her feeling the most emotionally naked and humiliated. Again, in interviews, she spoke about not loving herself enough. When Blige returned to NPR for a 2017 interview for her album, Strength of a Woman, still in the thick of divorce, she confessed, “I don’t mind the pain. I don’t mind it all because it hurts so good. It hurts so good.” Once that good pain goes away, there can be moments like The Breakthrough, a testament to the self-love Blige has curated for herself and a rejection of the old love she once knew.