Mary J. Blige
Amber is covered only by strategically placed tufts of hair on Naked. But it's not just her amber-hewed skin that's exposed. Amber's voice has never been more upfront, and neither has her songwriting ability. While Naked is her third album, it's the first where she's wielded total control. As enjoyable as her past hits were, we wish her control had begun long ago. Naked is a remarkable accomplishment, a mark of true talent -- though the album isn't perfect.
All the sophisticated fixings of the album's first song, "Yes," don't add up to a coherently satisfying single. Her second hit, "The Need to Be Naked," works far more in her favor, though the real meaning behind the lyrics will be lost on casual listeners. Amber is without question a first-rate writer of pop melodies, but she's also probably too lyrically provocative for the mainstream. She talks a lot about sex, about being naked, about dirty thoughts, but she often uses the provocation just to get your attention; it's a ruse to talk about human frailties, about revealing our true selves and being honest, about stripping down to our emotional core.
In addition to her sophistications, Naked shows off some of Amber's blemishes, almost all of which appear when she slows down and relaxes her pace. "You're Sent From Heaven" features carried-away screeches from a broken-winged angel stranded on barren-desert beats. Her cheating husband is causing her much distress in "Dirty Thoughts," but our distress comes from her head-scratching metaphor: "Here I am on a raft on a black waterfall of dirty thoughts." Her mother actually wrote the fetching fast-dance "Heavenly Proximity." Momma obviously loves to dance, though it's mostly dance-by-numbers.
Mother also co-wrote with her daughter an ode to Amber's son, "The Smile of My Child." It's a stunning departure from anything we've ever heard from the artist. Her voice has always been distinctive but disguised by forceful beats, suggesting weak Madonna pipes. But one listen to this cabaret-styled song and we realize she has a second career all lined up as a Kennedy Center chanteuse. Then there's the other standout here, "Sex & The City." Harkening back to that warm feeling Pet Shop Boys gave us with "New York City Boy," this is perhaps Amber's most satisfying song to date. And remember the Boys' joyous "Absolutely Fabulous," written for the BBC series? Amber emulates them again, though there's no guarantee the HBO series will pick up the song (which is why she wrote it un-commissioned). It'll probably only be a hit if they do, since it sounds like a commercial otherwise. But that push could just be the post-"Sexual" boost Amber needs. Come on Carrie, this is Amber's night.
And considered briefly: Is "No More Drama" Thunderpuss's best remix? No. It was a phenomenal song to begin with; it's just the duo's best remix this year. Is Dance for Me Mary J. Blige's best album? No. She puts out consistently good discs. But it is unique, and we've waited far too long for it, a full acknowledgement from Blige of her fans out on the dance floor. Is this the best dance album of the year? No. It does include amazing tracks, including the high-tide "Your Child," whose violent waves helpfully washed up all the others here. (No surprise it's from trendsetter Junior Vasquez.) But it also includes a couple pallid remixes -- fortunately, everything isn't "Everything." Is there anything more that needs to be said?