Mary J. Blige has always been truth serum for the heartbroken. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free --- Blige was there, speaking out --- and she had her head held high, a tear or two flowing, fussing and fighting to just be well, happy. She just gets this thing called life, and it's why for 20+ years, Blige has been at the forefront of confessional soul and hip-hop, crowned as the queen.
Yet, for someone so intimately associated with heartaches, who had indirectly and directly endured abuse, and survived addiction, Blige seemed to wean off her usual script for her last few albums as the albums following the 2005 stunner, The Breakthrough, seemed to not possess the same introspective spark as her others. While she broke through and noted that she was 'just fine', and we were there rooting for her to climb above the grey clouds, there was some distance, and some sincere want for the raw ,"heartsick Mary" again just so we could have those "I'm Going Down" and "No More Drama" moments.
Still in-between the heartaches, it's always difficult to find artistic footing when you've been at it for so long, and when the musical climate shifts and blows frosty in your direction. What had been painful for Blige, and worthy of document, has dulled somewhat and left little room for contemplation. Yet, there was still room for change.
Change came when British production whiz kids, Disclosure reached out to Blige for a re-work of their single,"F For You". The result was undeniable as the two differing acts proved compatibility, and Blige sounded electrifying and anew. When crooner Sam Smith came into the picture another bond was formed as she found a kindred somber soul spirit and one of the best duet partners she's ever had. With these new ties, Blige decided change was in order, as she packed her bags and headed to London for a month-long stay to craft what is possibly her best foot forward in almost a decade.
Blige has never struck me as someone who really bought into the commercialism of R&B. Of course she had tried to court popularity on the ill-advised, 2011 sequel to her classic 1994 album, My Life, potpourring the set with of-the-moment techniques and hot guest spots. Yet, even in her missteps, Blige was still accessible to her loyal fanbase, eschewing the system by staying true to herself and whatever she brought into fruition. Even when she was matched with banal beats she was still 'very Mary'. Evident was her taking the stage at this year's American Music Awards where she performed "Therapy" and "Whole Damn Year" and she showed up --- with just her voice. That's all she needed. Granted she was the "oldster" in a sea of minnows, but Blige navigated the school with class, teaching the babies about longevity in the game of popular music, and quietly noting that it has little to do with the booty, but everything to do with being a vocal storyteller.
As the music industry makes futile attempts to prevent women in popular music to age, Blige, unlike her peers (*cough* Mariah Carey *cough*) never felt the best way to appear younger is to push the wink-and-gun 'cool mom' narrative. While the tactic seems monetarily sound, it doesn't do much for integrity. Instead of Blige recapturing her youth on The London Sessions, she let's the youngsters come to her.
Present on The London Sessions are the hippy Brit kids of today --- Disclosure, Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, and Sam Romans --- and in some meta twist, Blige finds herself working with these artists who are currently interpreting the catalog she has carefully culled for over 20 years. Listen to Smith's breakout debut, In The Lonely Hour, and singles like, "Stay With Me". Take in the sketches Sandé proclaimed on her 2012 debut, Our Version Of Events. They both ooze with Blige's virtue and divulgence, as well as lending a keen ear to how Blige maneuvers R&B and swirls it with high-octane Gospel elements. This influence rolls into The London Sessions, as instead of these new kids mangling her formula and trying to twist her into sounding 20 years her senior --- they elevate her. There is a lot of care in how Blige lyrically operates and an awareness of how Blige's voice works, and with these considerations it leaves little room for overindulgence, and a lot of room to bring Blige back to the Gospel roots she began her career on, and then some.
Blige's voice is taunt, has aged well, and is clear and unwilling to be bossed, making such ardent stances as the standout, "Long Hard Look", and the intricate strut of "Follow" into big anthems, the latter giving Disclosure some of their best work yet as the sizzling kiss-off spirals into a sea of cymbals and stuttering synths that heightens, not hampers, Blige's fiery vocals. As always, she continues to climb into her own headspace, but she is now even sharper at quelling the monster inside as she stands at the pulpit, high in her conviction to change for the better, best noted on the stellar, "Doubt" (aka my new anthem) as she spouts over piano chords and choir coos: "I'm gonna be the best me, I'm sorry if it kills you". Preach.
She keeps on preaching with current single, the piano pricking Sandé-penned, "Whole Damn Year". Its a brutal and confessional piece, but Blige hangs tough in confessing her trust issues as she lays out the naked lyrics in its somber waltz: "see winter took most of my heart and spring punched right in the stomach, summer came looking for blood, and by autumn, I was left with nothing". Its accompanying visual excels at highlighting the cycle of domestic abuse with sensitivity and smarts.
As always Blige picks pieces of her heart up and leaves room for joy as she matches the wiggle of the clarinet on the soul shine of "Pick Me Up", and doesn't quiver when she even lets out a little sly humor on "Therapy", nodding and paying tribute in the direction of Amy Winehouse's, "Rehab" while in the midst of mending.
Though Blige was active during House's reign in the early-to-mid 1990s, she didn't engage in it even though her voice was more than capable to rise above the clamor of the genre's signature skyscraping synths. As House utilizes the teachings of Gospel, Blige just breezes through the excellent bounces of "Right Now", and the Robin S.-esque, "My Loving", and sends vocal chills in the misty deep twilight of the yearning "Nobody But You".
As The London Sessions dips into the expansive house cuts, the albums gets somewhat lost in its ping-pong rhythms, with the album's sequencing being far from seamless. Longtime producer, Rodney Jerkins is at the executive producing wheel, lending to why The London Sessions is Blige's most thematic record since My Life (which is celebrating 20 years this year!) as in its 12-track stretch it jumps from heart-bleeding ballads to rhythmic club crawls. While not fully corralled, in its sprawl the set still courts experiment.
Most people I know have a Mary J. Blige album (or two) that just introduced itself at the right time, fitting into their current personal narrative and acting as a shoulder to lean, cuss, and cry on. For me, 2005's The Breakthrough did the trick as it was an album that carried me through the high and lows, and many doubts I felt in my first years of undergrad. The words just etched into my heart, onto my mind, and patched the wounds up. Sam Smith shares a similar anecdote as when the last notes of "Doubt" cease, he gushes about how much he views Blige as a "untouchable goddess", and cites that upon meeting her he didn't expect Blige to be "like him", to be "so similar". We look for that in artists. We look to find similarities --- to see, hear, and feel connection --- to note that we weren't alone in our thinking, that we won't be alone as long as they keep speaking their truth, our truth.
Though Blige may seem more put-together than we all are, throughout the course of her career we see that that isn't always so true as she has been reassembling herself, reviving herself, and has proven time and time again to be human like us all, and with The London Sessions this truth is no different. Just this time Blige she has found a new way to express her joy and pain, and has intersected these layered feelings into a new and bolder musical frontier that allows her to still be in-tune with what resonates deep within her, as well as smartly turn the page for the next chapter in the journey of herself and her art. The only way is up from here.
Released: November 24, 2014
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