Mary J. Blige - The London Sessions (Universal)
What do the Brits know about soul music that Americans don’t? Probably nothing, really; geographical flukes of genre happen all the time, and the Brits have embraced and emulated African American music for almost a century. Mary J. Blige—the queen of hip-hop soul, the woman who has sold more than 50 million records, a woman who can do anything she wants—set up shop in London earlier this year and started co-writing with Sam Smith, Disclosure, Emeli Sandé and others. Why? To chase Adele and Amy Winehouse? For a fresh start? Just to see what would happen after she sang on a Disclosure remix? No matter. The result is five kinds of fabulous.
Blige has always traded on her empathy and personal struggles (previous albums: Share My World, No More Drama, Stronger With Each Tear), her songs sometimes sounding like an Oprah pep talk set to music (sample lyric here: “There’s only so much I can do if you’re not loving you”). Here, however, she sounds all the more strong atop either sparse, simple, vintage soul arrangements or modern disco and house. In the tradition of great house divas of the ’90s, her voice is largely unadorned, showcasing all her gospel glory, the power and range that can be buried in larger productions. Needless to say, on the stripped-down tracks, like the doo-woppish Sam Smith co-write “Therapy,” or the bare-bones piano ballad “Worth My Time,” she absolutely soars.
The sound of The London Sessions is thrilling on its own, but the songs are also some of Blige’s strongest. Most devastating is “Whole Damn Year,” a heart-wrenching depiction of a woman coming through either abuse or depression or both—or worse: “It took a whole damn year to repair my body … it’ll take a long, long year for me to trust somebody … it’s been a bad five years.” In Blige’s hands, of course, it’s a declaration of purpose and strength. She doesn’t expect you to understand her pain; she doesn’t even want to give you the details: just know it’s there and accept it. And if you’re in the same situation, Blige’s voice is the one you want and need to hear. It helps, too, that two songs later Blige is singing atop major keys and a house beat with a looped clarinet and singing about how “soon the sun gon’ be shining on me.”
It’s going to be a long winter, but Mary J.’s there for you. (Dec. 4)
Download: “Whole Damn Year,” “Therapy,” “Pick Me Up”