Release Date: Dec 2, 2014
Record label: Capitol
Mary J. Blige had a productive 2014. Early in the year, she linked with Disclosure for an alternate version of the U.K. duo's "F for You" and performed with them in New York. A few months later, there was the release of the all-Blige soundtrack for the comedy Think Like a Man Too, which consisted ….
For someone historically known as the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," Mary J. Blige's more successful albums have always captured emotional distress stemming from whatever drama she was enduring in her life at the time. Simply put, happy Mary was boring Mary, making an inverted model that was bad for her wellbeing but great for the charts. She's been relatively happy in recent years; her artistic output had mirrored that."The London Sessions" sees Blige adopt a back to basics approach that feels like a reboot: "I can't keep on doubting myself anymore," as she sings on "Doubt." As the story goes, a month spent across the pond working with English names like Sam Smith, Disclosure, Naughty Boy and Emeli Sandé spawned the project.
Collaborations between US R&B royalty and UK acts have become relatively common but it’s hard to think of one as heartfelt and classy as this. Blige’s co-writers, including UK-to-US success stories Disclosure, Emeli Sandé and Sam Smith, find striking ways to frame Blige’s voice without distracting from its richness and emotional range. Naughty Boy delivers the record’s upbeat highlight, marrying Blige’s vocals to clarinet, garage beats and euphoric piano chords, but Sandé collaboration Whole Damn Year is no less impressive, exploring the aftermath of sexual and emotional trauma.
In February, Disclosure released a remix of their ‘F For You’ single featuring Mary J Blige on vocals. Guy and Howard Lawrence had a powerful effect on the New York R&B singer, and in July Blige moved to London, intent on injecting Disclosure’s throbbing house pulse into her own music. The result is ‘The London Sessions’, a record that, in the skittish ‘Right Now’ and the crackling dancefloor thrum of ‘Follow’, contains two co-writes with the Lawrence brothers.
This past January, Mary J. Blige appeared on a remix of Disclosure’s "F For You"—an unexpected but instantly natural pairing that at the time seemed merely like a coronation of sorts for the legendary R&B singer. Instead it was a harbinger for both the individuals involved and the scenes they represent. As 2014 played out, the Lawrence brothers would see their breakthrough hit "Latch" become a surprise staple on rap and R&B radio stations, while Blige used her turn on "F For You" as the launching pad for a complete career digression—if not an overall reinvention.
Mary J. Blige's 2011 album My Life II didn't exactly recapture the mojo of her classic 1994 original. So, after a Christmas album and a soundtrack, the R&B royal headed to London to record this proper follow-up – a smart move, considering that Brits from Amy Winehouse to Adele to Sam Smith have made some of the best soul music of the past decade. The reboot works: Disclosure take Mary to the club with deep-house grooves on "Right Now" and "Follow," while the gospel-blues testimony "Therapy" (one of four songs co-written by Smith) takes her to church.
Sometimes seasoned vocalists reach out to new collaborators to shake the tree of creativity, to claw their way out of an artistic rut, or to simply explore their options. And then other times vocalists put all their chips on the hottest new faces on the scene so as to push back the expiration date on their credibility. With only a few exceptions, Mary J.
No citizens on earth love American soul more than the British. And, since the breakthrough of Amy Winehouse eight years ago, no country has produced more twists on the sound. Small wonder Mary J. Blige moved to London earlier this year to immerse herself in the U.K.’s interpretation of the music she lives and breathes.
Mary J Blige has decided not to go cryptic with the title of her latest album: The London Sessions comprises 12 songs she recorded with the likes of Disclosure, Emeli Sandé and Sam Smith during a recent month-long stay in the city. In fact, so intent was Blige on imbuing the album with the sound of young London that its recording was allegedly fuelled by a very British stimulant: fish and chips. (You can only presume spontaneous Morris dancing and jokes about John Terry broke out between vocal takes.) Blige found time to visit Mitch Winehouse, to pay her respects to his daughter, and the opening song here, Therapy, is a self-conscious nod towards Amy Winehouse’s Rehab.
“She also said that she’d been waiting for someone to write with and fill exactly what she was looking for in terms of production and the beat. And then once you add Jimmy and Sam to the equation to write melodies and songs, it’s like a power team. It’s just good timing as well. She’s just ready to do it.
Mary J. Blige is more than two decades deep into her career, a point when even the most gifted singers working the divide between R&B and pop start being treated like has-beens or nostalgia acts. Could the Mary-does-the-Motown-songbook album be far behind? Actually, that's not such a bad idea, but "The London Sessions" (Capitol) is an even better one.
Self-actualization music is a minefield, dense with platitudes, received wisdom, and unearned empowerment. What sets “The London Sessions” apart is that Mary J. Blige believes it. Blige believes the hell out of it. At times, the album’s title seems to refer not to recording but to ….