''Deep inside I wish that they could see/That I'm just plain ol' Mary,'' Mary J. Blige sings, as noted homeboy Sir Elton John tickles the staccato riff from ''Bennie and the Jets'' on the ivories. That moment on ''Deep Inside,'' the track that inspires this accomplished album's modest title, is telling, because there's really nothing simple about Blige. Keeping it street for the Yonkers, N.Y., projects where she grew up but kicking it with the knighted Rocket Man, flirting with crossover success but reluctant to yield her status as queen of the around-the-way girls, ''plain ol' Mary'' is, in fact, a bundle of contradictions.
The inner rumblings of those contradictions, however, are exactly what make Blige, now 28, so intriguing. She lacks, for example, the smooth demeanor, model looks, and philosophical pretensions of Lauryn Hill, the singer who has most greatly benefited from the hip-hop soul breakthrough of Blige's 1992 debut, What's the 411? Nothing about Blige is neatly resolved -- from her relationship to pitch, which is very much a sometime thing, to the yearning for love that has made her such an intimate to all those sistahs who are still waiting to exhale. Given the multiplatinum sales of her 1997 disc, Share My World -- certain to be matched by this new album -- Blige should be an acknowledged superstar. But somehow she still seems to be struggling, and therein lies her deepest appeal.
Musically, Mary is essentially a long, soulful, ballad-tempo vamp over which Blige alternately -- and sometimes simultaneously -- tells tales of faithless love, preaches the gospel of female strength, and determinedly clings to hope. The arrangements are both lush and spare -- rich, rhythmic bass lines and taut percussion anchor moody string, keyboard, and synthesizer melodies. Blige embellishes her narratives with an impressive array of moans, groans, whoops, sighs, and melismatic flourishes, playing the emotional chorus to her own unfolding drama. She is at her strongest when she moves from song lyrics into pure sound.
The album's standout track is ''Your Child,'' which centers on a gripping confrontation between the singer and a woman who has secretly borne her lover's baby. Rather than triggering a ghetto catfight, Blige identifies with her rival (''Girlfriend, she wasn't disrespectful. How could I argue with her/Holding a baby with eyes like yours?''). She calmly ditches her boyfriend (''There can never be any more us'') and informs him of his responsibilities: ''How could you deny/Your own flesh and blood?'' It's a powerful, five-and-a-half-minute made-for-TV movie, the world according to Blige.
Elsewhere, as on almost all R&B albums these days, the stars come out to play. Lauryn Hill wrote and produced Mary's first single, ''All That I Can Say,'' a lovely summer breeze in the manner of '70s Stevie Wonder. In a real compliment, the usually uncontainable Aretha Franklin works beautifully around and within Blige's vocal limitations to transform ''Don't Waste Your Time,'' an otherwise unspectacular Babyface production, into something special. Eric Clapton lends an atmospheric guitar part to ''Give Me You,'' a sweet, sweeping ballad written by Diane Warren.
The heart of the matter, however, is ''Not Lookin','' on which Blige reunites with K-Ci Hailey, the R&B man of the moment, an ex-boyfriend and her duet partner on ''I Don't Want to Do Anything,'' from What's the 411? As the two intently go at it, the boundaries between reality and the studio blur to thrilling effect. Hailey makes the case for a purely physical relationship (''I just wanna hit you wit' my groove.... Baby, can't you respect my honesty?''). Blige, working herself into a churchy frenzy, is having none of that ''playa s -- -.''
The heat rises as the two singers exchange fire and Blige calls out for a witness: ''All my ladies, stand up and clap if you feel me!'' Having broken out of the frame of the song, she's already on the stage, doing what Mary J. Blige does best -- making a heart-to-heart connection with her female fans by channeling the everyday insults and injuries of the love wars into passionate vocal art. B+
Mary J. Blige Mary MCA