Mary J. Blige, Strength of a Woman | Album Review
Mary J. Blige, the queen of hip-hop soul, captures the effects of divorce and ended love sensationally throughout ‘Strength of a Woman.’
“Cuz I ain’t no quitter babe / and I be damned if all these years I let you diss me babe.” Sigh, years ago, the return of Mary J. Blige would’ve been an event. Sadly, while her post-divorce album, Strength of a Woman is highly anticipated to her most loyal fan base and R&B enthusiasts, the release isn’t nearly as thrilling as The Breakthrough in 2005.
The Breakthrough arrived after a more lackluster album for Blige, Love & Life (no disrespect), arguably improving it’s ceiling. Similarly, Strength of a Woman arrives after the sound, but underrated London Sessions, which has yet to be certified gold by the RIAA. Following her divorce from Kendu Isaacs, Strength of a Woman, on paper, should showcase Blige in her zone, hence amp up the buzz. She captures her emotions, but the anticipatory buzz should be more pronounced.
On opener “Love Yourself,” there’s a sense of drama and heartfelt emotion from the start. Blige sets up the record, discussing love. After a slow, mysterious start, the hip-hop soul kicks in. Hard, anchoring drums, a brilliant, looped trumpet sample, and Blige bestowing bountiful blessings with strong, emotional vocals, establish “Love Yourself” as the crème de la crème. The most memorable moment occurs during the chorus:
“Oh, you gotta love yourself / If you really wanna be with someone else / You gotta feed yourself / Before you feed somebody else.”
Kanye West guests on the second verse, providing a lift as he raps about his come-up. Ultimately, “Love Yourself” initiates Strength of a Woman with a bang.
“Thick of It”
“Thick of It” represents a return to form for Blige. The songwriting is successful and well-suited to her strengths. She’s always excelled at big songs, driven by the pain and triumphs of love and resolve. Even though this lushly-produced record plays to grown folks, there’s something for the young too. The second verse hails from the ‘Drake play book,’ with Blige is more or less pop-rapping.
“What a hell of a year / if I make it through hell and I come out alive I got nothing to fear / no more crying and trying … / let me be clear / I wasn’t perfect / but this shit ain’t worth it / I’m done with the mess…”
“Set Me Free”
“Set Me Free” gives Strength of a Woman a jazzy, soul highlight. Blige continues to exhibit fierceness, even with jazzier cues employed here. She’s incredibly blunt, solidifying the parental advisory sticker gracing the album. Clearly pissed, on the chorus she sings:
“There’s a special place in hell for you / You gon’ pay for what you did to me / I’ma tell you ‘cause the truth will set me free.”
The love – rather divorce – rollercoaster continues to drive the narrative on Strength of a Woman. On “It’s Me,” Blige questions his mindset. Ultimately, she’s been honest with him throughout the relationship, but he’s become a stranger. It’s not the most memorable moment from the album, but it’s soundly performed and relevant to the theme.
“Glow Up” features a star-studded cast: Quavo, DJ Khaled, and Missy Elliott! This is Mary J. Blige in a more contemporary setting, for better or worse. Always adaptable, “Glow Up” is moderately successful, but it doesn’t play to her strengths like the one-two punch of “Love Yourself” or “Thick of It.” Notably, once more, Blige is pissed off, showing her more explicit side. There’s still some censorship, but like many of her contemporaries and younger artists, she can spit a few expletives too.
“U + Me (Love Lesson)”
Blige drops the bomb early on standout “U + Me (Love Lesson).” U + Me (Love Lesson).”
“Must’ve been crazy to think that you loved me / I saw all the signs but I just couldn’t say nothing.”
Essentially, she sees the errors of his ways, not to mention her own delusion of love. Essentially, her experience is a life lesson, rather, a love lesson. The sentiment is perfectly summarized on the chorus:
“You plus me was a love lesson / In too deep without perfection / Not always good, but I stayed on my feet / You had me, should’ve never questioned.”
After depicting her pain throughout the verses and confirming her education on the chorus, she picks herself up, showing off her resolve on the bridge.
“Indestructible” builds upon the resolve Blige showcases on “U + Me (Love Lesson).” The message is empowering, best captured by a lyric from the chorus:
“You gotta love like you never been hurt, to find a love that you deserve / Indestructible, indestructible.”
On “Thank You,” one of the better songs, she’s thankful to her ex. Why? He showed her his true colors, and she escaped. By escaping, she can grow as a person. She’s no longer tied down to his BS.
“Survivor” and Beyond
The remainder of Strength of a Woman is respectable, but doesn’t necessarily produce a definitive hit or knockout punch. On “Survivor,” she continues to flex her strength in spite of an unfortunate situation. It’s cliché, but few empower more than Blige. “Find the Love” sounds like it could’ve fit on The London Sessions, given its danceable, feel-good, soulful groove. Again, it’s positive and uplifting, featuring superb vocals, without being the second coming. “Find the Love” provides welcome acceleration of the tempo.
“Smile” once more slackens the pace, pairing Blige with Prince Charlez. If nothing else, it’s a beautiful, touching performance. “Telling the Truth” brings her to the 21st century, featuring an unlikely collaborator in KAYTRANADA. Penultimate title track “Strength of a Woman” affirms strength, backed by slick production work and gritty vocals. “Hello Father” concludes fittingly, with Blige seeking spiritual guidance and affirming the only love she needs comes from God.
All in all, Strength of a Woman is another welcome addition to the Mary J. Blige discography. Perhaps the most lucrative years of her career are long behind her, but clearly, she still has plenty to offer. Vocally, she remains a force to be reckoned with – few can sing like M.J.B. The biggest rub is the lack of that definitive hit. Too often, Strength of a Woman is good, but lacks that record or records that elevate to the next level. This isn’t The Breakthrough 2.0, but it is enjoyable, thoughtful, and ultimately, effective.
Gems: “Love Yourself,” “Thick of It,” “Set Me Free,” “U + Me (Love Lesson)” & “Thank You”