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. Possessing seemingly endless amounts of emotional trauma to draw upon, Blige has produced twelve albums all characterised by songwriting of deep introspection – apart from 2013’s ‘A Mary Christmas’, perhaps. Over the last 25 years, Blige has worked to keep her place as contemporary R&B’s matriarch and her thirteenth record, ‘Strength of A Woman’, bolsters this legacy.
‘Strength Of A Woman’ follows on from 2014’s ‘London Sessions’ LP, an attempted departure from Blige’s usual studio sound, prompted by her crossover success featuring on Disclosure’s hit ‘F For You’. While the ‘London Sessions’ record was admirable in showcasing Blige’s capacity to write and sing over differing styles, it lacked the consistency of so much of her back catalogue, instead prioritising generic experimentation to win over a new generation of listeners. With house music and Disclosure out of her system, then, ‘Strength of A Woman’, sees Blige return to her soul, hip-hop and R&B roots.
Opener ‘Love Yourself’ is suitably grandiose in its solo piano and bright horn stabs, featuring a verse from Kanye West extolling the virtues of one of his favourite emotions: self-love. As the album title suggests, this record is one of female empowerment, and it certainly delivers in its upbeat choices of production paired with Blige’s usually powerful vocals. Tracks like ‘Thick of It’, ‘Survivor’, and ‘Hello Father’ are equally uplifting and bring to mind some of Blige’s finest ‘90s work on albums like ‘What’s the 411?’ and ‘My Life’.
The album isn’t just made up of tracks to satisfy old fans, though; numbers like ‘It’s Me’ and ‘U+Me (Love Lesson)’ are refreshing in their use of trap-influenced sub-bass and heavier drum programming, rather than the orchestral swells of a typical Blige production. As evinced by her work with Disclosure and the many remixes of earlier tracks like ‘Real Love’ and ‘You Remind Me’, Blige is equally capable of making songs for the dance floor, as well as for the bedroom and post-breakup come-down. The Missy Elliot-featuring ‘Glow Up’ is a highlight of the record - despite DJ Khaled indiscriminately shouting over the track - as Blige embodies Frank Ocean and Dawn Richard in her rhythmic vocal.
Yet, running at 16 full-length tracks, ‘Strength of A Woman’ can seem overindulgent. Songs that are enjoyable in isolation, or as a smaller subset, become either repetitive or forgettable in the context of the whole. For instance, ballads like ‘Thank You’, ‘Set Me Free’ and ‘Indestructible’ become draining to listen to in one sitting, whilst atypical tracks like the funk-influenced ‘Find The Love’ and the electro-pop ‘Love In The Middle’ become incongruous and even jarring in the midst of so much other material.
Ultimately, Blige’s prolific songwriting is her downfall. The best tracks on ‘Strength Of A Woman’ seem destined to be poached for streaming service playlists and radio play, while the album as a whole potentially goes unnoticed, dragged down by its own weight and fated to settle comfortably only in the back catalogue.
Words: Ammar Kalia
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