Still searching: Mary J. Blige

Mary J. Blige – Strength of a Woman

Beloved by a female fanbase proud of its independence, who may read self-help books with enthusiasm but hip to the balderdash, Mary J. Blige has for yeas offered serious competition to Conor Oberst and Laura Marling. Since 2001’s No More Drama, if not before, she has made a point of recording bromides and motivational Powerpoints. From Kehlani to K Michelle, a generation of R&B singers owes a considerable debt to Blige’s hip hop affinities and, most importantly, her sensuality. The difference between them and Blige is that Mary uses psychobabble to toughen the sensuality; the sensuality is the effect, not the cause. Experiences teach her lessons. Sex and relationships fail but she emerges a tougher woman. If she’s feeling sanguine, sex and relationships work because she’s a tougher woman. This approach can get exhausting: self-awareness hardens into self-regard, especially when she seizes younger talents by the collars and compels them to affirm media-created monikers, for all I know threatening them with a read-through of The Power of Now.

On Strength of a Woman, Blige sheds the clattering dance tracks of 2014’s excellent Disclosure collaboration The London Sessions; the emphasis on voice and lyrics here should have inspired a title rewrite, perhaps to The Analyst’s Sessions. “How can life go on without me here?” she wonders on the title track, as impervious to irony as Big Bird. Irony is the weapon of the cultivated, who act with the fluency of gesture that suggests power even if they lack power. “There’s a special place in hell for you,” she sings in falsetto on “Set You Free” (as in “The truth shall…”). Skip the Quavo-Khaled-Missy collaboration and for god’s sake call your congressman about the leadoff Kanye track; get to the album’s heart, the triptych from “U + Me (Love Lessons)” to “Thank You,” the latter a Jazmine Sullivan cowrite, one of three. Sullivan’s talent for making generosity a product of observation gets some of its most luxurious settings; I wish Blige had kept her for a full album. The keeper is “Indestructible,” a whirring, clicking letter to a shattered friend whom I suspect is Blige herself.

I miss the Blige of 1999’s Mary, in which her primal screams found correlatives in her celebrations of disco and pre-disco R&B. “U + Me (Love Lessons)” comes close. She gets there with “Hello Father,” a hymn unsettled by the tension between strings and Hit-Boy’s wobbly electrobass. Contemporary R&B radio doesn’t have much room for her, or K Michelle and Fantasia for that matter, but the less she tries the more luminous her force, the stronger the woman.

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