Review of The London Sessions Album by Mary J. Blige

After a bit of reflection, 'Coming to London' just sounded so odd. We live in a world now, after all, where artists need nothing more than an internet connection to be able to collaborate with each other, meaning Mary J Blige's announcement that she was forsaking New York for Britain's capital had something of a twentieth century ring about it. Countering, the singer explained that this wasn't some kind of Royal engagement from her perspective, and that she wanted to use the energy and creative vibe generated by the Thames to give her music a regenerative makeover. With the cutting edge being provided by a clutch of talented young froth from around the city, 'The London Sessions' are the result.

Mary J. Blige The London Sessions Album

For much of its first third, it's easy for the listener to ask themselves why she bothered to make the trip. Opener 'Therapy' - co-written with cherubic, Grammy scoffing Sam Smith - is a sardonic, bare bones number that leaves few stones unturned lyrically, but opens up no new doors. It's followed by 'Doubt', a slightly overblown tale of ultimate redemption clearly indebted to gospel but again, not really very well... Shoreditch. Make no mistake, this is Blige doing what she does impeccably, her voice still honeyed where it needs to be, raw in other moments, but again the pattern of living within her glossy means continues through 'Not Loving You' and 'When You're Gone'; both polished, mid-tempo and full of poise but, equally, neither being anything which breaks her mould.

Blige in the build up had spoken about immersing herself in the underground house sounds of the nineties, beats which outfits like Disclosure and Gorgon City have reproduced so faithfully over the last couple of years, and the breakthrough finally comes on 'Right Now', produced and co-written by Blige with the former (MJB gets those joint chops on every song) but bearing their spidery minimalism throughout. Finally, with any inhibitions abandoned, what follows is a kind of whistle-stop genre tour, from the rave squawks and big piano vamps of 'My Loving', the crisp two step of 'Pick Me Up' through to the lush disco of 'Follow'. Despite the diversity, each of these you think speak more to the singer's open mindedness and versatility rather than a sea change in her philosophy; when in Rome and all that, rather than casting aside a formula which has helped sell more than 50 million albums worldwide.

Just to reassure everyone - and possibly herself - that we're back on track no matter what city we happen to be in, the denouement 'Worth My Time' is a ballad in classic the Houston/Franklin mould, Blige heartfelt here but a little featureless, the song executed to perfection but the original concept is, by its presence, ultimately lost in some Trans-Atlantic way station like a piece of errant luggage.

Perhaps the expectation that one of the world's foremost R&B artists might somehow have her MO torn up merely by hanging out with the odd major label production team is a naïve one. 'The London Sessions' is not the sound of Blige allowing a series of audiences whilst vigorously going through the motions, but equally it's an opportunity missed by everyone involved. It's not quite the more things change the more they stay the same, but what could've been fascinating remains permanently looking for a spark, where a few more risks may have earned us some genuine thrills.


Andy Peterson

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