Occasionally you play a new album with no expectations - or worse, low ones - and find yourself stunned by what comes out of the speakers. Mary J Blige's Stronger With Each Tear is just such an album, and proves that some things really do improve with age.
Blige has put together an album of young, dance-floor-friendly hip hop/R'n'B with the help of some of the hottest producers in the industry (Ne-Yo, Rodney Jerkins, Stargate). In fact, it's not until the ninth track, We Got Hood Love, that there is even a hint of the power ballad Blige is often associated with.
For the most part, the songs are millefeuilles of rich vocals, complex arrangements, inspiring lyrics and irresistible beats. Those that are not - In The Morning, Colour - are pared-down, acoustic platforms for Blige's honeyed voice which steers clear of the unfortunate 'pitchiness' heard on early albums.
It's hard to pick highlights - tracks blend almost seamlessly into one another, yet never lose their uniqueness. Kitchen is a Motown-tinged slow groove, while I Feel Good is exactly what the title suggests - a musically upbeat, lyrically positive number.
Perhaps the most powerful song is closer Colour, which appears on the soundtrack for the Oscar-nominated Precious. An anthem to self-worth, it's the perfect finale for a woman who sounds stronger than ever.
YP rating: 4/5