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Mary J. Blige 

Reflections (A Retrospective) (Geffen)

A greatest hits album from Mary J. Blige presents more problems than you'd expect. For one thing, very few memorable singles exist between her first huge hit, 1992's sublime "Real Love," which anointed Blige the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and her latest, last year's "Be Without You." Like many great singers, Blige depends on the melodic invention of others, and the R&B she's been given over the years is solid, but seldom inspired.

Of the four new tracks included with this package, "We Ride (I See the Future)" stands out. Its graceful piano runs offer relief from the two-chord vamp common to Blige's oeuvre, while the tune's opening declaration -- "Everybody askin' why Mary ain't mad no more/Seems like a question I've already answered, too many times before" -- provides the real argument against this retrospective. Mary has never been about just hits; it's her rags-to-riches-to-respect backstory that ultimately captivates fans. That's a point you can more fully appreciate after seeing Blige's gospel-fueled live show, a cathartic explosion of joy and pain that's as much about affirmation as music. Her life is her art, with no best-of necessary.

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