Album Review: Strength of a Woman by Mary J. Blige
Very Good, Based on 8 Critics
Exclaim - 80 Based on rating 8/10
It may be twisted to say, but personal pain, anguish and drama are intrinsic to Mary J. Blige's best art. With her messy divorce providing a back story, her 13th release, Strength Of A Woman, sees Blige performing with an urgency and conviction that was lacking in previous efforts like 2014's Think Like A Man Too and that same year's impressive yet somewhat uneven The London Sessions.
"There's a special place in hell for you," she proclaims on the jazzy, slow burning recrimination of "Set Me Free," and much of the lyrical territory on Woman captivates without succumbing to soap opera histrionics.
Some artists reject equating their personal lives with their artistic ones. In the tradition of the most magnificent women in soul, Mary J. Blige has always invited it, freely discussing her travails and liberally exploring them within her songs, no matter how cutting. Yet on Strength of a Woman , ardent followers might find it jarring that the R&B diva should once again find a reason to look within for affirmation, at age 46 as she does on her 13th album's luminous, boom-bap opening track "Love Yourself." After a career peppered with songs detailing her abusive relationships and substance addiction, she appeared to find a plateau, a lane where she finally uncovered the happiness she deserved.
There isn't a dedicated Hip Hop fan alive who doesn't remember the standout guest vocals from Mary J. Blige on Method Man's 1995 smash hit "I’ll Be There For You/You're All I Need To Get By." The undeniable air of cool she exuded as she sang alongside one of Wu-Tang Clan's most infamous members was unforgettable. Twenty-three years later, the Queen of Hip Hop Soul has a litany of classic albums under her belt, including What's The 411, My Life, Share My World and Mary.
After famously proclaiming that there would be “No More Drama” in her life in 2001, Mary J. Blige seemed to finally find real love when she married her manager, Martin “Kendu” Isaacs, in 2003. But after the couple's split last year -- and the ongoing divorce battle that has reached Empire-level soap operatics -- the drama is back in a big way.
On Strength of a Woman, Mary J. Blige covers a lot of lyrical ground familiar to anyone who has heard her 11 previous studio albums. A significant fraction of this set's sentiments are clichéd. There are self-help platitudes such as "You gotta love yourself before you love someone else," along with timeworn redemptive declarations like "I was lost but now I'm found" and "Now I'm finally free to be me." In fairness, the stock phrases are delivered with conviction, understandably weighed with a sense of "Not this bull again." The alleged extramarital antics that dragged Blige back into this darkness, after all, are as clichéd as it gets.
F ollowing a widely publicised divorce, R&B queen Mary J Blige has chosen a telling title for her latest release: this is not an album that seethes or despairs; rather, it grapples with insecurity and ultimately revels in determined power. Strength of a Woman bursts to life with previously released opener Love Yourself (a Kanye-featuring, brass-heavy jam), while clever guest spots bring a fresher sound: Quavo, DJ Khaled and Missy Elliott on Glow Up are channelling trap-lite, while Kaytranada brings typical elegance to Telling the Truth. It's not groundbreaking, but Blige's vocals alone are a reminder of why she remains so important to the genre.
M ary's back! Queen of the quivery vocal, doyenne of done-me-wrong R&B, teacher of lung-wobbling lessons in love. Strength of a Woman is her 13th studio album, following The London Sessions (2014), on which she showed how good her vocals sound atop British electronic beats. Here she finds a (mostly) sweet spot between contemporary production and her classic sombre-sassy style.
Before Beyoncé there was Aaliyah, and before Aaliyah came Mary J Blige. Mother of '90s R&B, Mary J Blige has become one of the most successful female artists of the genre with her unique blend of raw, emotive vocals delivered over hip-hop influenced production. Since her debut in 1992, Blige's longevity has been cemented largely by consistency, rather than reinvention.