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New recordings: Willie Nelson, Gorillaz, Mary J. Blige [The Philadelphia Inquirer :: BC-MUS-ALBUMS:PH]

Willie Nelson

"God's Problem Child"

(Legacy (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

Though he seems so supremely chill, Willie Nelson keeps up an incredible pace in his professional life. In addition to the constant touring, the Red-Headed Stranger, who turned 84 last month, has been putting out two albums per year ever since becoming an octogenarian. "God's Problem Child" is different from most because, rather than (brilliantly) interpreting other people's songs, he's back to penning them, with seven new tunes cowritten with Buddy Cannon, with most of their lyric collaboration happening via text message. Nelson's name is in the news whenever he cancels shows, and he makes clever fun of internet rumors of his demise on "Still Not Dead." But joking aside, "God's Problem Child" has a sometimes-sobering air about it, as Nelson takes the measure of serious subjects like "A Woman's Love" and, on the bluesy title cut (featuring Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White), the inevitability of regret. He's also appreciating his recently deceased pal Merle Haggard on "He Won't Ever Be Gone." Of course, the same could be said of Willie, who thankfully still walks among us.

_Dan DeLuca

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Gorillaz

"Humanz"

(Parlophone (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))

With the Gorillaz as with Kiss, being a cartoon band means never having to age in public. The difference is that Damon Albarn's dystopian party band also stays youthful by replenishing its ranks with of-the-moment guests, drawing on talent that might have been completely unknown for their last album. To wit, "Humanz" - the first Gorillaz album since "The Fall" in 2011 - features guest appearances by Vince Staples, D.R.A.M., Kelela, Popcaan, and Danny Brown, along with older hands, like Mavis Staples (no relation), Grace Jones, and De La Soul. The result plays more like a star-studded mixtape or playlist, akin to Drake's recent More Life, than a conventional album. As such, it's a pleasantly off-kilter party mix, full of insinuating grooves like "She's My Collar," which pairs Albarn with Colombian American singer Kali Uchis and "We Got the Power," a teaming of Albarn with former rival Noel Gallagher of Oasis, plus mildly subversive skit-like interludes, such as the conformist-mocking "The Non-Conformist Oath." Humanz breezes by, and Albarn can be too facile for his own good. But if Humanz isn't full of songs that stick with you, it's never less than entertaining, and likely to make guests think you're cool if you play it at your backyard barbecue.

_D.D.

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Mary J. Blige

"Strength of a Woman"

(Capitol (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)1/2)

Explicit in a fashion that goes beyond salty language, sexual intent/consent, and dissed wedded bliss, this tower of rough-yet-elegant R&B and sweet soul empowerment, and the new matron of Philly's July Fourth celebration tackles newly ruined romance and weary old wounds as few singers, female or male, before her have. A ragged Nina Simone comes to mind, as does latter-day Annie Ross, when it comes to this sort of wronged-woman woe. Yet it's Blige's streety edge and hip-hop haughtiness that sends her bemused looks at her own abusive plights to the top of the pop charts.

"Strength of a Woman" finds the put-upon, bluesy Blige - happy for a time after long-discussed problems with bad men and cheap drugs - once again leaving a lousy recent relationship, this time from her husband/manager. Starting grandly with "Love Yourself" (made trap hoppy for new ears) and closing with the small and homey tearjerker "Hello, Father," Blige works through her problems with a spacious, quiet storming atmosphere that leaves ample room to gripe, snipe, and hope for the future. In between those torrid poles, there are revenge cuts ("Glow Up"), shockingly straight-ahead guest appearances, and spare ballads ("Smile") where Blige's quavering vibrato portrays an outward sense of moral victory, even if she's tiny and broken inside.

_A.D. Amorosi

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FOR SALE FRIDAY

Todd Rundgren, "White Knight"; Paramore, "After Laughter"; Harry Styles, "Harry Styles"; Dion, "Kickin' Child: The Lost Album 1965"

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