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Blige keeps it real on ‘London’

Soulful album runs gamut of emotions

Mary J. Blige performs at the American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Nov. 23. (Associated Press)
Mary J. Blige performs at the American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Nov. 23. (Associated Press)
Greg Kot Chicago Tribune

Mary J. Blige is more than two decades deep into her career, a point when even the most gifted singers working the divide between R&B and pop start being treated like has-beens or nostalgia acts. Could the Mary-does-the- Motown-songbook album be far behind? Actually, that’s not such a bad idea, but “The London Sessions” (Capitol) is an even better one. It pairs the singer with songwriters and producers who have shaped the sound of U.K. soul and club music in recent years. It’s fitting, because many of those same up-and-comers have cited Blige’s early albums as a key influence.

Following a 2013 remix of one of her songs, “F for You,” by Brit garage-house duo Disclosure, Blige booked a month in London earlier this year and collaborated not only with Disclosure’s Guy and Howard Lawrence but with other U.K. disciples and admirers such as Sam Smith, Emeli Sande and Naughty Boy. The result is her most vital album in years, one that not only carves out a niche for her in contemporary dance music but also digs deeply into her gospel and soul-ballad roots.

It’s not a total success, because a few of the more uptempo tracks threaten to mute Blige’s big personality. The lone American collaborator, longtime Blige producer Rodney Jerkins, wheels onto the disco floor with “My Loving,” and the singer becomes an expensive ornament atop the kick-drum thunder and distorted answer vocals. Disclosure’s “Right Now” and Naughty Boy’s “Pick Me Up” are as much about club-ready beats and textures as they are Blige’s vocals. But another Disclosure track, “Follow,” clears out some room for Blige to scold an unworthy lover, particularly during the stripped-down breakdown section.

“The London Sessions” is best when Blige has room to be herself: surveying the damage and trying not just to cope, but to fight through. Her career is a chronicle of personal travail, and the catharsis of singing about it. Blige, unfiltered, has unmatched intensity. It’s difficult to listen to “Whole Damn Year,” co-written by Sande, and not flinch. “Spring punched me right in the stomach … summer came lookin’ for blood. … It took a whole damn year to repair my body,” Blige sings as if reliving each psychic blow.

Not everything is quite so devastating. Blige has never sung more nimbly than she does when scatting over finger snaps on “Doubt,” or more beautifully than on “Not Loving You” and “When You’re Gone,” sparse tracks built on little more than piano or guitar. There’s also an unexpected hint of humor. “Therapy” nods slyly to the late Amy Winehouse’s darkly ironic “Rehab.” In Blige’s version, she fesses up to her drama queen reputation and acknowledges that even she gets tired of the sound of her own complaining. “I don’t want to be around me, and I don’t blame you for blocking all my calls,” she sings. Her solution: Pay a shrink twice a day to listen. As an added bonus, it’s a great song, soaked in gospel organ, doo-wop vocals and handclaps. At 43, Blige is still revealing new facets of an artistic persona that has endured because of its honesty and transparency.

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