Geffen Records - 2003 - 72 minutes

The queen of hip-hop soul offers up more than enough to maintain her title with 'Love & Life'. Even for a non-believer it's hard to find much fault with this one.

Consumed with the characteristic big beats of hip-hop, the extraordinary range of Blige's voice lends equally well to the vocally strong ballads as to rapping rhythms. With twenty tracks listed on the album, the variety of material is wide-ranging but Blige achieves a harmony throughout that ensures an effortless flow.

Not short of guest appearances, P Diddy, Jay-Z, Eve, Method Man and 50 Cent are all featured on 'Love & Life', each uniquely complimenting the musical style of Blige. And with a fast hit already under her belt in 'Love @ 1st Sight', it is difficult to imagine any future releases not going down a storm with fans of Mary J, and indeed a wider market.

Aptly titled, the content of 'Love & Life' is a true exploration of the extreme highs and lows of contemporary life with very real lyrics about life experiences. Performed with gusto and a relentless passion that has become a hallmark of her work, Blige hits all the right notes here.

And with such a compliment of tracks on the album, it is certainly an accurate portfolio of the artist. 'Finally Made It' in particular is a brief, extraordinary, and vocally powerful insight into Mary J Blige, the person as opposed to the commodity. To be cynical, perhaps that too is an attempt to play to the market, but on the surface it seems to add an air of honesty and credibility to the material that follows.

It is refreshing that Blige has also thrown in a few wildcard tracks like 'If I Don't Love You This Way' which seems out of sync with her usual style, blurring the line between pop and hip-hop. The upbeat offerings of 'When We' and 'Not Today' stand out, but to be fair, there are few space-fillers on this album. 'Love & Life' emphasises, if it was necessary, the inimitable intrinsic talent of Mary J Blige.

Linda McGee

Tracklisting: Love & Life Intro (featuring Jay Z & P. Diddy) - Don't Go - When We - Not Today (featuring Eve) - Finally Made It - Ooh! - Let Me Be The 1 (featuring 50 Cent) - Love @ First Sight (featuring Method Man) - Willing & Waiting - Free - Friends - Press On - Feel Like Makin Love - It's A Wrap - Message In Our Music - All My Love - Special Part Of Me - Ultimate Relationship (A.M.) - Didn't Mean - If I Don't Love You This Way.