Critically acclaimed R&B artist, Mary J Blige, is inspired by the hubbub of London. So much that she considers the city as her muse. With a career spawning 25 years and counting, you’d think that it’d be a good time to start experimenting with different styles of music. That’s exactly what Blige has done with her latest studio album, The London Sessions. Set over a backdrop of the bustling city itself, Blige’s thirteenth studio album boasts an impressive array of deep house, acoustic and soulful R&B vibes.
It’s clear that in this album, Blige is going for a minimalist feel. Take the album’s opener, Therapy. With a smooth acapella start, the track quickly breaks off to doo wop, jazzy vibes. It’s a lighthearted track with a heavy emphasis on bass and gradual crescendos – needless to say, Blige’s vocals are at their usual flawless peak, her verbrato both moody and soulful. We’re then taken to Doubt, a very churchy track characterised by old pianos and a recital choir. With the sweeping strings, it’s all very elevating and inspiring as she croons, ‘I can’t keep doubting myself now.’ But despite all this, something still sounds missing; perhaps the song could be performed with more gusto – not just from the singer herself but also from the instrumental. It’s the same piano progression the whole way through, and a few empowering crescendos and build ups could go a long way.
For something different, there’s Not Loving You, a sombre piano ballad that suits Blige’s melancholy melodies. It’s one that’ll pull at your heart strings; she’s literally pleading to us, ‘there’s only so much I can do if you’re not loving you.’ When You’re Gone is another acoustic one, except instead of piano we get strumming guitars. This one falls into the contemporary pop category, with a slight hint of country laced into it. The emotion and pain will always be there, but what we’re hearing is the evolution of an artist – this is miles away from Blige’s previous hip hop/R&B specialty.
But how much change is too much? Blige begins to push the boundaries starting with Right Now, a bold move into the modern pop genre. Produced by Disclosure, its subdued synths and soft electro dance beats provide the perfect recipe for relaxed vibes – despite the heavy break up content of the lyrics. It’s the same deal with My Loving; in fact, all these chilled dance beats are starting to sound a lot like Canadian artist Kiesza. It limits Blige’s potential; these tracks are very much repetitive and doesn’t give her an opportunity to show off her vocal chops. Also, the inclusion of such tracks makes the overall album confusing – we’re led to believe that her new sound is leaning towards the jazzy side of things, but then it veers off to another direction altogether. The final effect doesn’t show off her musical versatility, but rather, leaves the album sounding messy.
A saving grace however, is the soulful ballad Whole Damn Year. Damn straight, this is the genre that Blige suits best – it lets her freely pour her heartfelt emotion into an altogether brilliant performance. With Emeli Sandé’s lyrical genius and Naughty Boy’s production, you can be guaranteed that this one’s a winner. From the soft harmonies to the R&B beats, Blige shows off a whole lot of vulnerability that makes the track seem so much more real, as opposed to the dancier tracks like My Loving. Even though the following track Nobody But You falls into the latter category, it’s still got that distinct Mary-style to it: chiller and old school. With it’s noughties disco vibe, it stands out from the same old club hits of the Top 40. And it’s a change that’s both welcome and refreshing.
Even though some styles suit her some not-so-much, Blige is still able to pull each sound off. To appreciate this experimental stage, perhaps we should be looking at each track individually rather than how it all contributes as a whole. Throughout the album we hear interview breaks from other notable Brits, commenting on Blige’s musicality. Disclosure summarise it best: ‘it’s the reason why people are so successful…they’re not afraid to change what they do completely.’