First the good news: Love & Life is vintage Mary. Reunited with the mogul formerly known as Puff Daddy (“Thank you God for allowing me to work with Puff again,” reads the album’s liner notes, as if some divine power actually has a vested interest in this ongoing collaboration between the two), Mary rekindles the old-school soul of her P. Diddy-navigated debut. The light airiness of “All My Love” and the clunky, minimalist drum loops of tracks like “Don’t Go” hark back to What’s the 411? and My Life, respectively, while “Press On” is yet another gem that can be added to Mary’s arsenal of inspirational anthems. The bad news is that vintage Mary isn’t always necessarily good. No matter how palatable his sample-heavy productions may be, Love & Life proves that Diddy is still incapable of an original idea. The flawless, sample-free “Not Today,” produced by Dr. Dre and featuring Eve, stands out here like a shiny penny on a dirty city street.
With each new album, Mary claims to be liberated, enlightened, happy, etc., but just a glimpse of one of her public appearances or self-righteous interview clips (in which she constantly refers to herself in the third person) and it’s evident she’s still waist-deep in the struggle. Of course, this raw, modern interpretation of the blues is what has made Mary one of the greatest soul singers of her generation, but much of Love & Life finds her regurgitating the same contradictory messages that have made her previous efforts less than perfect. In fact, it’s this perfection that she claims to be seeking on “Finally Made It.” She babbles on and on about how “spiritually successful” she is and how lucky she is not to be braiding hair (though it’s undoubtedly a job many of her fans have). “It’s not about the money,” she says, but what are we to make of the jewelry and furs or the diamond-studded car key hanging from her neck on the cover of Love & Life? Mary’s spiritual quest has always seemed self-absorbed, and judging by tracks like the painfully dramatic and cynical “Friends,” it’s clear she’s still in battle-mode.