After 22 years in the music business, Mary J. Blige felt it was time to reinvent her musical identity. The “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” took a month-long pilgrimage to the United Kingdom this past summer to concoct a new sound with some of contemporary British music’s most successful singers, songwriters and producers.
The stylesetting songstress credited for shipping over 50 million albums worldwide and releasing soul-stirring, emotionally-charged songs like “Real Love,” “Be Happy,” “Not Gon’ Cry,” “Family Affair,” “No More Drama,” “Be Without You” and “Just Fine” had no idea what would come out her musical plunge.
Blige’s musical excursion resulted in what is currently her 13th studio LP, The London Sessions.
“I was starting to feel stuck as an artist,” says Blige on a recent visit to The Buckhead Theatre in Atlanta. “I was feeling like everything was getting stale that I was doing. As an artist, I needed to do something completely different for my own liberation.”
Scheduled for release on December 2, The London Sessions stem from Blige stumbling upon Disclosure’s uptempo track, “F For You,” while binge watching music videos on Vevo. The nine-time Grammy winner fell in love with the song because it reminded her of something she grew up listening to.
After Blige landed on a remix of “F For You” with the duo, someone suggested to the singer who had just ended her record deal with Interscope that she record an EP with Disclosure. Capitol Records Chairman Steve Barnett, on the other hand, came up with a better idea.
Blige, wearing dark shades, a multi-colored sweater, diamond-looped earrings and fur vest, would write and record all-new material with Disclosure, Sam Smith, Emeli Sande, Naughty Boy, Jimmy Napes, Eg White, SAM ROMANS and Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. As Blige describes her conversation with Barnett in detail, she humorously mocks his voice.
“When he was speaking, I could see it,” says Blige seated in a plush gold armchair. “It was starting to come to life. It wasn’t a nervous bone in my body about the concept of going. The only nerves I had were about the types of music that was gonna be selected. The English are making all of the noise over here on pop radio.”
An accompanying Sam Wrench-directed documentary running barely an hour fully chronicles Blige recording The London Sessions. Opening with a retrospective montage of Blige’s career, the black-and-white intimate portrait follows the singer in-and-out of three studios. She spends 10 days on writing and ten days on recording.
Any other time, Blige is filmed dining on fish and chips, riding in the backseat of a Mercedes-Benz limo, working out daily in Hyde Park and taking a poignant meeting with singer Amy Winehouse’s father, Mitch, on the third anniversary of the troubled singer’s untimely death.
In the studio, Blige is a sponge. The Yonkers, NY native shows up at noon sharp to write, reference songs, record the material and leave the studio by six or seven o’clock in the evening. The vocalist takes one day off for vocal rest.
Blige has an idiosyncratic approach when she records. She uses a color scheme to suggest the mood of her songs.
“It wasn’t like going in there at four, and we get out of there at four a.m.,” says Blige. “They didn’t do that. They’re serious about not hanging out all night. I didn’t have to do anything but live there and be an artist.”
What’s transparent throughout The London Sessions is the chemistry that exists between a vocally vulnerable Blige and her inspired collaborators. Emerging out of those sessions are gospel-influenced numbers (“Doubt” and “Not Loving You”), ambient electronica-meets-dance pop (“Right Now” and “Nobody But You”), 1950s styled doo-wop (“Therapy”), acoustic folk (“When You’re Gone”) and distorted jazzy soul (“Long Hard Look,” “Pick Me Up” and “Whole Damn Year”).
Two of The London Sessions’ tracks have been featured on the hit ABC medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy.
Smith co-wrote four songs with Blige on The London Sessions. The label mates became cool with each other after shooting a video for his chart-topping ballad, “Stay With Me.” Smith and Blige also performed together at Terminal 5 in New York City.
Like Smith, the other younger performers and creators refer to Blige as an influence on their music. At the same time, Blige found it necessary to put forth strong effort as well. “I already knew just from talking to [Sam] and bonding with him it was gonna be great when we started to write together,” says Blige.
“The fact these artists are young and new, and I’ve been around for a very long time, I have to dig deep inside of me to show them why I’ve been around and why I’m still relevant.”
Blige then goes into how easygoing she is in the studio. She doesn’t think she behaves like a diva. “I don’t know how to do that,” declares Blige. “I come in like a person. Whoever can deliver is where I’m comfortable.”
The City of Atlanta honored Blige with both a proclamation and Phoenix Award. Amidst the tidal wave of euphoria and screams coming from the audience, Blige doesn’t shy away from thanking the crowd numerous times for being supportive of her.
She uses a book analogy to describe The London Sessions as an indication that her musical evolution is long overdue.
“We’ve created over 20 years of legacy together,” says Blige. “We’ve been rocking. That history is still alive, still bubbling and that book is still wide open. This journey is for who wants to come. I don’t wanna force anyone. I want people to feel loved and pulled in naturally.”
Long gone are the days of Blige pouring pain and heartbreak on a song. She’s far removed from her high-profile substance abuse and self-destructive behavior. These days, Blige is proud to be an inspiration to a generation of women and music listeners.
More importantly, she’s proud that The London Sessions allows her to step out on faith and challenge her artistry. There is no doubt in Blige’s mind that she’s cemented her place in the pantheon of popular music and is spiritually free.
“I’ve come a very long way,” says Blige, “and I have a long way to go. I can truly say that I’m proud of the progress that I’ve made. It’s balanced. I didn’t have an overexaggerated opinion about my importance on this Earth. I know who I am, and I know that God loves me.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.