Words by Edward T. Bowser, SoulInStereo.com
When Mary J. Blige announced that she was releasing a new album on the heels of her failed marriage, R&B fans rejoiced.
Um, hold up. That didn’t come out right. Let me rephrase:
When Mary J. Blige announced that she was releasing a new album on the heels of her failed marriage, R&B fans knew that Mary would have a story to tell – and pain produces the most poignant music.
And for 25 years, MJB has been the matriarch of heartbreak and healing.
If you want to understand Mary J.’s narrative, look no further than her album titles – My Life. Share My World. No More Drama. The Breakthrough. Growing Pains. Stronger With Each Tear.
Mary wears her tattered heart on her sleeve – it’s her honesty that makes her music so relatable and groundbreaking.
While her previous album, 2014’s underrated The London Sessions, was filled with simmering soul, Strength of a Woman, MJB’s 13 studio album, is more like scorched earth.
Cuz when a woman’s fed up, it ain’t nothing you can do about it.
In a recent interview, Mary J. said that the album’s first single, “Thick of It,” was written not long after her marriage crumbled. So when she belts out “Are you worth the fight?/Are we worth the fight? … You know I deserve more than this,” the emotions are gut-wrenching. But Mary goes from brokenhearted to breaking dishes on “Set Me Free”:
“How you gonna fix your mouth to say I owe ya when you had another b**** takin’ trips n’ s*** with my money for so long – you must have lost it (lost your miiiiiiind). N****, you won’t get a dime.” Then she hits him with “there’s a special place in hell for youuuuu.” In falsetto.
Kendu better run for his life. Mary ain’t been this pissed since the first Clinton administration.
But save the drama for those garbage gossip blogs. Mary’s real strength is when she channels her anger. “U + Me (Love Session)” is vintage Mary, where she coyly reads her ex the riot act before moving on. She admits it was “not always good, but I stayed on my feet.”
In other words, it’s not me, it’s you.
Those lessons continue with the self-explanatory “Love Yourself.” While the lyrics don’t break any new ground – it’s the same “love you before you love somebody else” stuff your grandma told you back in middle school – it’s the vicious horns producer DJ Camper use on the track that will keep you running back. Kanye West’s guest verse is surprisingly poignant too. It’s good to hear him sounding coherent again and not like a spastic Autobot.
The second half of Strength of a Woman is less about regret and more about rebuilding. The results are a bit mixed, though. Understated ballads like “Indestructible” and “Thank You” seek comfort in the midst of chaos. On the latter, MJB says “Thank you for showing me who you really are” and “when people show you who they are, we should believe them.” They’re wise words from a woman who has been down this road before.
Those tracks work better than the somewhat tepid duet “Smile” and the hyperactive dance track “Find the Love,” which just feels out of place. The subtle, tropical vibes of “Telling the Truth” do a much better job of raising the tempo without straying too far off course.
MJB has had her struggles but don’t weep for her. On “Survivor,” she proudly proclaims that “I paved the way for so many to break free” and ends the album with “Hello Father,” a stirring affirmation of faith.
It would be cliché to call Strength of a Woman a “return to form” for Mary J. In fact, this album is Mary doing what she’s always done for 13 albums now – facing her torment head-on, then marching on to brighter days.
The queen stay the queen.
Best tracks: “U + Me (Love Session),” “Thick of It,” “Love Yourself”
4 stars out of 5