Album of the Week \

Review: Mary J. Blige’s Organic, Heartfelt ‘London Sessions’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: December 2, 2014
Label: Capitol

Over the past decade, Mary J. Blige has proven her ability to cloak herself in the sounds of the moment, which is why it’s hard to take Blige at face value when she describes her new album — The London Sessions, out tomorrow — as the most career-reinvigorating project she’s ever taken part in. We’ve been here before: She hooked up with early-’00s hip-hop producer Theron Feemster for 2008’s “Work That,” a factory-made rap-pop track that Apple snatched right up for one of its commercials later that year. Then, in 2009, Blige enlisted the then-up-and-coming Young Money rapper Drake for “The One,” a misguided two-stepping clapper that the singer described at the time as “the most successful of my career” (ick). And remember My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1)? It was the New York legend’s 2011 sequel to her 1994 classic that ended up a patchwork of “this is what the radio sounds like today” (see: features by Rick Ross, Diddy, and Lil Wayne) and failed to do anything more than deliver a lukewarm rehash of 2011’s better, more exciting hits.

The London Sessions is everything Mary J. Blige has been working towards for what feels like a decade. The soulstress has beaten this album’s story into the ground, but it bears repeating: after collaborating with Disclosure and Sam Smith on remixes of their respective singles, “F For You” and “Stay With Me,” Blige decided to chase that sound and shipped off to London for the summer to work with such producers as Naughty Boy and Jimmy Napes. Those sessions yielded London, a compact, 12-song project that scurries between traditional, introspective soul (the addiction “Therapy” and self-empowering “Not Loving You”) and strobe-ready house (“Right Now” and “Nobody But You”), though one whose such transitions can be a little rough around the edges.

Rather than hiding behind the tools, tricks, and sounds of the present for The London Sessions, the Queen of R&B actually finds her voice through them. This is one of the first times this century that any of her albums has sounded like a true Mary J. product, rather than just the studio-crafted work of heavy-handed producers emphasizing the singer’s husky, heartfelt vocals. In an interview with Billboard last month, Blige remembered that Bono had told her to forget singing on key. “People don’t care about Mary J. Blige being technically on point,” she said he’d told her. “They just want to hear you sing from your heart.” That’s a mantra that binds London’s 12 tracks together. “Not Loving You” in particular stands out for the flaws it proudly wears: Blige’s vocals flatlines a bit when she really goes for it, but that’s not a bad thing. Those cracks and squeaks are all her, all the time, dousing the track in emotion without shining a spotlight on its themes.

Tracks like “Long Hard Look” and “Follow” are such revelatory moments that it’s crazy to think that no one had ever properly harnessed Blige’s vocals before. “You think that you can kick the sand in my eyes / But you should walk a little softer,” she sings on the latter atop a fizzy Disclosure track before the chorus erupts with tinny drum beats and spiraling tambourines. It’s both Mary and Disclosure at their finest, the singer’s multi-layered diva vocals perfectly complementing the producers’ ping-ponging melodies.

It’s admirable to want to branch out musically and lyrically, and Blige does both well on The London Sessions, but she suffers from a lack of editing and tightening, which leaves the album to careen about more than it should. Slow burners like “When You’re Gone” bleed out quietly, only to have the beat jarringly pick up with “Right Now.” The problem becomes apparent when the album’s sound veers too far in one direction, making it disjointed. Blige’s new LP is really just two extended A and B-sides, one a soulful deep-dive into addiction and its fallout, the other a clean, crisp basement dance-off. Sonically, London would work better if the transitions were more seamless than the clunky, copy-and-paste spoken-word interludes by Disclosure and Sam Smith, who gush about Blige’s talent and bravery in segments that could’ve been saved for the album booklet.

Structural issues aside, the strength of the material on The London Session is enough to place the Queen back on track to relevance, after a number of less-inspired efforts had all but sapped her career momentum. A few more sessions like this — with a more refined musical direction — and Ms. Mary could once again carve out her own path rather than following in the footsteps of lessers.