They call her the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, but Mary J. Blige has evolved into something else: the Oprah of Song. From early on see her scorching plea for ''Real Love'' back in '92 she's laid bare her struggles with substance abuse, bad relationships, and, as the diva herself would say, ''learning to love Mary.'' Along the way, she's become a couture-clad preacher of the get-it-girl gospel. Her latest, Growing Pains, positions the singer once again as a woman both searching and instructing: Whereas the average R&B groove asks you to shake what your mama gave you, Blige wants you not only to shake it but to feed it, love it and maybe put a fierce wig on it.
The first two singles unleash Blige at her most commanding. On the buoyant, disco-delving ''Just Fine,'' she decrees, ''Keep your head up high/In yourself, believe in you, believe in me.'' Meanwhile, the even more potent ''Work That'' (now running in an iPod ad) casts Blige as the Pied Piper of independent womanhood. ''Read the book of my life/And see I've overcome it,'' she intones over a synthesized thump before issuing her battle cry: ''Follow me, follow me, follow me, girl/Be yourself.'' It's as if every lady-affirmation anthem, from Dolly Parton's ''9 to 5'' to Donna Summer's ''She Works Hard for the Money,'' has been funneled through an R&B widget, then dusted off with the aphorisms from a dozen O magazines.
Pains, of course, offers Blige incarnations other than Proud Mary. There's the Angry Mary showcased on ''Roses'' (as in, it ain't all...) and ''Nowhere Fast'' (available on the iTunes version of the album), driven by an excoriating chorus that doesn't so much plead with as menace an errant lover ''You ain't leaving me.'' And then there's Materialistic Mary, who, on ''Feel Like a Woman,'' seems to equate true love with nice accessories: ''If you're on your way home,'' she sings to her man, ''buy me somethin'/Buy me a bag, buy me shoes.''
But the most compelling manifestation is Vulnerable Mary. She shines on the buttery bedroom groove of the Neptunes-produced ''Til the Morning,'' then on two lovely ballads co-produced by go-to slow-jam man Ne-Yo. ''Fade Away'' is spare, while ''Smoke'' is intricate, laden with strings and piano. Both are tender, melancholy, and completely unguarded.
So in the end, it's just Mary: a superstar, clearly, but also a woman still in the process of finding herself. Even if that means she's imperfect (and, yes, a little preachy), at least it feels real. B
DOWNLOAD THIS: See the video for ''Just Fine'' at artistdirect.com