For someone who practically invented modern R&B’s hip-hop-infused style, Mary J. Blige has no problem abandoning it. With the release of the 43-year-old singer’s 13th album, The London Sessions, this week, she shows off a new style with some assistance from Disclosure, Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, Jimmy Napes, and Sam Romans. It’s a sound that deserves its own name: let’s call it soul house.
House music has made a big comeback in recent years. This is largely due to a group of young, London-based producers and artists, some of whom Blige works with on this album — particularly her past collaborators Disclosure. Only half of The London Sessions could be considered dance music, so it would be overly generous to call it a re-emergence of house with the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul at its helm. But with Blige’s strong, smooth vocals leading the charge, the album has a certain class and maturity that could allow house to appeal to a wider range of listeners. More importantly, she introduces herself to new millennial listenership that may not be familiar with “Real Love” or even “Family Affair.”
Blige takes her time easing into a house groove, starting the album with “Therapy,” a dated doo-wop co-write with Sam Smith that sounds more like Amy Winehouse than Jessie Ware or Katy B. “Not Loving You” mixes an Adele piano ballad with Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”; it’s beautiful but a bit boring. With this kind of a start, it’s natural to wonder if all the build-up around The London Sessions was false advertising. Musical icons looking for a career jump-start do it all the time. But with a little time, Blige shows herself open to change, and at their best, her soul throwbacks follow Smith and Sandé’s decidedly modern leads. “Whole Damn Year,” one of the album’s strongest but most traditional songs, places an undercurrent of UK garage in its beat, elevating its piano melody to fresh, subtle places.
As the album moves into its second half, Blige takes on a different role. “My Loving,” “Nobody But You,” and “Pick Me Up” position her as a house hook girl not unlike “Finally” singer CeCe Peniston, who was chasing a very different path while Blige was starting out in the early ’90s. “Right Now” and “Follow,” both produced by Disclosure, bust her out of the ’90s in full technicolor. They’re the album’s best songs, mostly because they deliver on the album’s promise while sounding decidedly forward-thinking. That said, they would fit in just fine on Disclosure’s forthcoming follow-up to 2013’s Settle.
The main flaw within The London Sessions is not that it doesn’t take quite enough risks — after all, Blige is never going to be FKA twigs or any of the other electronically adventurous R&B singers to have popped up in recent years. In any case, it’s doubtful that her fanbase would be amenable to such a dramatic reinvention. But Blige is smart enough to take cues from her younger contemporaries, and she does a largely excellent job of doing so throughout this record. No, if there’s one complaint here, it’s perhaps that the album is too aware of what it’s doing, down to the spoken-word interludes from collaborators.
“It’s the reason people like Mary are so successful: they’re just not afraid to change what they’re doing completely,” one of the Lawrence brothers from Disclosure offers between tracks, echoing a quote that went out in a press release announcing The London Sessions. Smith says something similar in another interlude tacked on to the end of : “The London Sessions is, number one, the bravest thing, and number two, just so honest.” If the idea was to create a document of Blige’s time recording London, I’d suggest a short film accompaniment to the album, not interview clips weaved into the songs. Blige doesn’t need to pat herself on the back for changing: the music — and frankly, her career — is proof enough.
More than 20 years into her career, Mary J. Blige has made one of her most interesting albums to date. Sometimes an innovative concept doesn’t lead to results that are enjoyable to listen to, but Blige hits the sweet spot between something old and something new. The tried-and-true lyrical themes that built her career — personal strength in the face of adversity and struggles in longterm monogamy — remain intact, but the rest takes cues from where pop has been headed for a few years now (unsurprisingly, it involves a little bit of looking backwards). It would be easy to call The London Sessions the best Mary J. Blige album in a decade because of the risk she took, but it’s worthy of the title.