Mary J. Blige’s new album, Strength of a Woman, is the reveal of a powerful woman not quite taken down by betrayal and heartbreak. Empowered by her inner strength, she appeared to find a plateau, a lane where she finally uncovered the happiness she deserved.
In the tradition of the most magnificent women in soul, Mary J. Blige has always invited us in, freely discussing her travails and liberally exploring them with her songs, no matter how cutting. On Strength of a Woman, the R&B diva, at age 46, once again finds a reason to look within for affirmation, as she does on her 13th album’s luminous, boom-bap opening track, “Love Yourself.”
Mary will never not be Mary, and through the deep-dive into self-empowerment, she understands her voice is her most effective tool – and her emotion is its understudy. “I’ve been broken for a long time, now I’m standing in the sunshine,” she intones radiantly over a simple piano accompaniment on “Smile.” The magic in Blige’s music has always been in her ability to transform straightforward, would-be schmaltzy sentiment into universal truths, and here, she does that magically, perhaps more fully invested in actualization than she’s ever been. While newer R&B fans might not be drawn to the stoicism Blige embraces, particularly those who gravitated towards her via Disclosure. It’s arguable that she has set the template younger faves want to emulate. In an era of musical confessional, Blige’s instinct has always been the most confessional of all.
That said, Mary J. Blige is never far from the culture at its most current. Just like rappers will sing, so too will Blige rap. On hyper-dense verses in triple-time cadences, her antipathy lives in the rhythm. Aside from “Telling the Truth,” a typical clanging club track produced by Kaytranada, she is at her most indulgent and delicious on the track, “Glow Up,” featuring Quavo and Missy Elliott. “Glow Up” is a gleaming revenge track in which she declares herself petty in a Migos flow – “I’ma glow up! Throw it in your face like ‘Yeahhhh,'” and vows to stunt on a spurned lover.
Strength is indeed what a Mary J. Blige Album has always been: a document of a woman facing and subsequently never succumbing to her obstacles, all combatting with gritty trills and not-quite-perfect vibrato that mirrors her not-quite-perfect truth. She has never been the most precise singer, and thus, she is the exact right person to deliver such apparently intimate missives from the soul. Vocally, there’s nary a chirp, even in her soprano, just a conjuring deep in the diaphragm. It manifests as she is: what you hear is what you get.