'Strength of A Woman' Album Review
, The New York Times Review
|Love In The Future
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|“Strength of a Woman,” the new album from Mary J. Blige, moves like a forest fire: ruthless, wide-ranging, blunt. The heat emanating off it is palpable. Ms. Blige has been scorned, is aggrieved and is dead-set on payback. No sensible person would want to be on the receiving end of this record.|
There is one disarmingly sweet moment, though.
On “Set Me Free,” Ms. Blige delivers some stern talk to the person responsible: “Tell me how you figure/That you made me and you gave me what I had before I met ya/And gonna have it when you’re gone.” It’s a lecture that goes from rage to finger-wagging and back.
And then she pauses, and sings, in a deliciously high and sugary voice, “There’s a special place in hell for youuuuuuuu.”
She sounds ecstatic and free, certain that true joy is knowing that the ones who have wronged you are certain to suffer.
This album is an unburdening, though one that’s rarely enacted with such glee. Ms. Blige recently split from Kendu Isaacs, her longtime husband and manager, and has been sharing details in the media. It is an unfortunate and messy trauma.
And yet. Ms. Blige is a virtuoso of suffering; few singers in recent decades have been as convincing in relating pain. And “Strength of a Woman” — her first album since the underappreciated “London Sessions,” in 2014 — is her most affecting and wounded album in several years.
“Should I stick it out? Are you worth this fight?” she muses on “Thick of It,” though judging by the tone of her singing, those are questions that already have answers. At some moments on this album, she’s lost in a reverie of frustration and anger, her verses giving up structure in exchange for loose but pointed exhaustion. On “Thank You,” she turns heartbreak into blessing: “Thank you for showing me who you really you are/’Cause up ’til now I wouldn’t believe you would go this far.”
That the music accompanying these realizations rarely reaches their same intensity level is a liability, but a small one. It’s also not directional in the slightest, even the songs that feature Kanye West (“Love Yourself”) or Missy Elliott, DJ Khaled and Quavo (“Glow Up”). The music isn’t immaterial — rather, its relative calm (apart from the disco number “Find the Love”) is a reminder to focus on the texture of Ms. Blige’s pain. She can tell stories that instruments just can’t.
Around midway through the album, the tone begins to shift from vengeful to empowering. She shifts from rebuke to righteousness (“How could you believe that I wouldn’t fight back?” she sings on “Telling the Truth”) and begins to use her story as a teaching tool. “You gotta love like you’ve never been hurt/To find a love that you deserve,” she implores on “Indestructible.” She could be issuing a warning to her listeners to examine the seemingly intractable pain in their lives, or she could be looking in the mirror.