Mary J. Blige records are like advice columns: The girlfriend who finds out about her man’s secret love child in “Your Child,” the devoted stay-at-home mom of “Not Gon’ Cry” who should have left her cheating husband’s ass “a thousand times,” each story is told to give voice, comfort, and direction to women struggling through complex relationships with troublesome men. You can’t sing that stuff as passionately as Mary does if you don’t know the ropes — for specifics, see the heartbreaking 2011 Behind the Music episode detailing her toxic relationship with Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey and the dangerous spiral of self-medication she fell into while seeking relief from it. Suffice it to say that music is as much of an act of therapy for Mary herself as it is for her listeners. You come to her to get an edifying word for your own life as she imparts a piece of hers.
On paper, her latest, Strength of a Woman, is a divorce record, and also Mary’s best in several years. But hanging too much credit on a man runs at cross purposes with the message and mission of the album. Yes, the project started taking shape as Blige began to feel like she was losing Kendu Isaacs, her husband and manager of 13 years, and heartbreak is certainly the catalyst for these songs of distrust and disruption. But he’s not the major player here. The magic of Mary is that even when the central plot of the story is a man screwing up, she pulls a yarn about women’s resilience and empowerment out of the mire. There’s a reason the new record is called Strength of a Woman and not Weakness of a Man. No one needs that story.
That’s not to say Blige doesn’t let him have it. “Set Me Free” is a put-down for the ages right from takeoff: “Tell me how you figure that you made me and you gave me what I had before I met you, ain’t gon’ have it when you’re gone / And how you fix your mouth to say I owe you when you had another bitch and taking trips and shit with my money for so long?” It’s her tone that makes it brutal. She sings it in that low, methodical voice you use when you’re giving someone ugly facts about their ways in public, but don’t want to make a scene. Later, “Glow Up” makes a posse cut out of Mary having the time of her life while newly single. It’s one thing to cross the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and catch a record about your shortcomings, but one featuring an eight-bar Missy Elliott taunt and your ex-wife stunting on your life backed up by Quavo and DJ Khaled ad libs? Somebody check on Kendu.
Strength of a Woman’s bloodletting is actually graciously minimal, all things considered. The meat of the album comes from warm, supportive slow jams like “Love Yourself,” “Indestructible,” and “Survivor.” The latter states the album’s aims most plainly: “I’ve come such a long way from really feeling like I’m gonna lose it / Now I’m helping somebody get through it / Yeah I felt pain, but I use it.” Mary isn’t just unpacking her own hurt here. She’s walking listeners through paths to their own recovery. It’s hard advice. “Don’t let what he put you through cause you to close your heart.” “You gotta love like you’ve never been hurt to find a love that you deserve.” “You gotta stay open, and don’t be foolish, ’cause everybody don’t mean you well.” It takes a certain sainted strength to turn your own life’s catastrophe into a teachable moment for someone else.
Blige sounds rejuvenated singing this stuff, but the takeaway shouldn’t be some toxic line about pain being her muse. She made crushing ballads like “Be Without You” while happily partnered. What sets Strength of a Woman apart from the last few entries in the Mary J. Blige discography is that she actually sounds like she’s up to the business of being the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” again. 2014’s The London Sessions was good, but the fingerprints of collaborators Sam Smith, Disclosure, and Emeli Sandé gave the album a closer resemblance to each of their respective works than Mary’s own. My Life II: The Saga Continues (Act 1), from 2011, was a too-clean, too-peppy approximation of the downcast sound and mood of Blige’s 1994 classic My Life.
It’s too bad the My Life II title was misspent, because Strength of a Woman feels like a wiser older sibling to that album, in its wounded yet optimistic thought process but especially in its production. Strength sacrifices the sprawl of post-millennial Mary albums for a careful melding of sample-based boom bap and trap sounds, served in large part by 2010s R&B guys Darhyl “DJ” Camper (Ne-Yo, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj) and Brandon “B.A.M.” Hodge (Tyrese, Tank, Trey Songz). Camper and B.A.M.’s productions feel current but faintly retro, and the result is that Strength is neither the sound of ’90s Mary regrouping, nor an attempt to give her music legs in the club. That means the album at times leans on an adult-contemporary trap sound, but it’s never enough to offset the passion and pain at center stage.
These records are tasteful but buoyant, right on time without necessarily straining to conform to the times. The feat shouldn’t pass as normal. (Making Missy and Quavo sound natural on the same cut is honestly a magic trick.) Blige’s 1992 debut What’s the 411? is old enough to rent a car this year. That album’s brash positing of R&B sensibilities and hip-hop production — at a time when rappers and singers kept their distance like oil and water — is now the rule, not the exception. Its nearest competitors are largely the stuff of Unsung episodes and grown-and-sexy cruise packages. Strength of a Woman existing at all is testament to Mary J. Blige’s powerful survival instinct, but for it to be this good? To quote “Glow Up,” they don’t call her the queen for nothing.