This past January, Mary J. Blige appeared on a remix of Disclosure’s “F For You”—an unexpected but instantly natural pairing that at the time seemed merely like a coronation of sorts for the legendary R&B singer. Instead it was a harbinger for both the individuals involved and the scenes they represent. As 2014 played out, the Lawrence brothers would see their breakthrough hit “Latch” become a surprise staple on rap and R&B radio stations, while Blige used her turn on “F For You” as the launching pad for a complete career digression—if not an overall reinvention.
Her new album The London Sessions features primary collaborations with Disclosure as well as fellow British pop superstars Sam Smith, Naughty Boy and “Latch” songwriter Jimmy Napes. That it stands as one of the final major releases of the calendar year is fitting as a summation of R&B in 2014. As the sound of pop mutated into dance music a few years back, R&B lost its footing in the American mainstream, leaving even its established superstars in the lurch. But R&B clawed back some of its relevance this year thanks to danceable, appealing songs that didn’t immolate the genre at the altar of pop radio. Chris Brown’s “Loyal”, for instance, was a massive hit, but more instructive in the context of Blige’s new album were Kid Ink’s “Show Me” and Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em”, two hugely popular DJ Mustard-produced songs that showed a younger generation how R&B could fuse with house beats in a way that feels completely natural.
All of this—from Mustard’s wizardry to R&B playlists finding room for “Latch” and Smith’s “Stay With Me”—has helped provide a soft landing spot for Blige, whose career has been floating aimlessly for a few years now. Blige is nothing less than a titan of R&B music, but she had fallen into a trap familiar to many popular musicians two decades into a career: by trying to cling to the zeitgeist she was making music that felt stale. Blige’s albums since 2007’s Growing Pains have been patchy, and she hasn’t had a true hit single since that album’s “Just Fine”.
No single from The London Sessions has yet changed that latter issue, but as an album it certainly doesn’t feel stale. Instead, it’s a seamless and occasionally thrilling listen that establishes a fact many could have predicted: Blige’s throaty vocals, as passionate and emotional as ever, are an ideal fit for house music. Nonetheless the album doesn’t exactly play out how you might expect.
For instance, it opens with a quartet of ballads, only one of which—a classic Blige self-help anthem called “Doubt”, co-written with Naughty Boy collaborator Sam Romans—rises to the level of the album’s better, later songs. Despite Blige stoking the album’s narrative with its name and by listing six songwriters on its cover, we are eased into the album slowly, as if we are wading into cold water. It’s like Blige couldn’t bear for her core fanbase to immediately hear a four-on-the-floor beat. The real meat of the album comes after these opening tracks—the album opens with a few wobbly steps, making the sequencing curious at best.
Then there is the matter of the big name collaborators. Disclosure and Sam Smith are the starry names here peeking out from behind the curtains, though they even get their moments in the spotlight in the form of spoken word interludes in which they gush openly about Blige. The thing is that, although these three might have been the inspiration for The London Sessions, their contributions don’t exactly stand out.
“Right Now”, a Disclosure production with a Smith co-writing credit that was the first song released off the album, is not only one of the album’s most forgettable tracks, but it’s also so bland that it seems like Disclosure and Smith (along with Napes) were almost afraid to disturb Blige. Their reverence is clear in the clipped interludes—”To me she was this untouchable goddess,” Smith says in one of them—but that too often translates to a sort of distance. “Follow”, the other Disclosure track (though this time without Smith), is better, but with its simple skipping garage drums and rubbery bassline it still feels like a Disclosure starter kit.
The Lawrence brothers are actually shown up by a few old heads. The album’s best track is “My Loving”, which was produced and co-written along with Blige and Romans by R&B god Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. The track is a pure ’90s house throwback, and it’s the first song on the album that really seems to electrify Blige. “I’m in heaven, every time you lay your body next to me,” she sings early in the track, letting her vocals run just slightly. Blige is channeling dozens of great, and often anonymous, house divas here, and naturally she fits in their lineage perfectly.
That song kicks off a run of tracks that really stabilizes the album. “Long Hard Look”, which sounds like a take on Sampha’s broken keyboard confessionals, is the album’s best slow number. It’s followed up by “Whole Damn Year”, another vintage Blige ballad that features quietly arresting vocals: “It took a whole damn year to repair my body/ It’s been about five years.” Following that is the second instance in which the young kids get taught old tricks: “Nobody But You”, the album’s second-best uptempo track, allows Blige to really belt a devotional house chorus, and she delivers. It was produced by UK garage forefather MJ Cole, who shows Disclosure how to stay out of Blige’s way with some clicking drums and piano chords while still giving her a song she can really sink her teeth into.
The album ends with another ballad, one that suspends Blige’s voice over pounding, chunky piano chords and a blush of strings. It is a final reminder that even if the surroundings change, Blige can wring emotion out of her voice like very few people on Earth. That, 20-something years on, she found a new way of showcasing this is why she is who she is.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1ueAMtg