Good artists are those that can essentially do the same thing for their whole career, but carry it out with such conviction and skill that it always sounds as fresh as ever. Great artists are the ones that transcend the wave that first surfed them to success, and start making shit you never really expected.
For that reason, you need to take this Mary J Blige album seriously, because she’s reinventing quicker than you can say “What’s the 411?” Through the experimental concept of capturing the sound of London’s finest pop, she’s birthed her best album in a decade, and to fully enjoy this piece of music, it’s worth breaking down it down into the key components.
You remember that Disclosure track “F For You”, which was like a slinky garage-house tune that was alright, but when it came on in a club, you’d sit down because all the people dancing to it looked ridiculous? Well, Mary J Blige heard it, and decided it was right up her strasser, so she wrote up her own vocal ideas, sent them to house music’s answer to the Brothers Grimm and next thing you know “F For You” had resurfaced with a poisonous bite, Mary spitting fire across it until it came bursting out of the closet dressed as an old-school house banger.
That duet was the start of something special. It awoke an anglophile in Mary and she enjoyed what she heard of the new British pop crop. Through Disclosure, she met Jimmy Napes (Sam Smith, Tourist, Disclosure), then Emeli Sande, Naughty Boy and eventually everyone else that worked on her new album.
By July this year, she had moved to London to see how far she could take this new direction. And like a mermaid looking for its next ship to holler, she beached herself at the legendary RAK Studios in Regent’s Park, luring as many young British pop purveyors as she could get her legendary hands on.
The album is roughly split in two, with the first half consisting mostly of laid bare ballads and gently grooving gospel that allow her voice to voyage a bit, then the second slowly slithers its way into thumping house and tapping rap beats, meaning no matter what Blige era you vibe, you’re gonna have a great time in here. “Right Now” sees her collaborate with Disclosure, and it is indeed the minimal bastard child of that “F For You” song they did together, but with much more shifty funk and colourful vocals. At the other end of the BPMs, “Long Hard Look” is a slow and sensuous pop song, produced by upcoming UK names Ben Harrison and Hugo Chegwin (bizarrely, the dude that plays Beats in BBC Three comedy People Just Do Nothing) and it channels the kind of dark and lethargic funk smudged pop sound that worked so well for that band Jungle earlier in the year.
The contemporary British references don’t just stop there though. The languorous guitar line over opening track “Therapy” sounds eerily reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Creep”, and the spectre of Amy Winehouse is very much present in both the vocal delivery and its similarities to “Rehab” - where that song painted a refusal to seek help, “Therapy” does the total opposite. Mary insisted on meeting Mick Winehouse for dinner during her time in London. Apparently they had fish and chips.
The list is endless, almost entirely British and almost completely linked. You’ve got Disclosure doing songwriting and production, who could be credited with launching Sam Smith off the back of their collab song “Latch”. Smith himself co-writes four songs with Mary on this record. As does Jimmy Napes, who co-wrote and produced some of Smith’s debut album In The Lonely Hour. Then there is Watford’s Naughty Boy, who went number one with “La La La” last summer, he produces a song for Mary which is co-written by Emeli Sande, and, you guessed it, they’d worked together before on Emeli’s debut album Our Version of Events. They are all linked by Sam Romans who has either sang or written with all of them, and he contributes to three songs.
In short, The London Sessions has glued together an artistically incestuous bunch of people - who have, in some shape or form, maintained a consistent presence in our top ten for over two years - and focused them all around one fixed ambition: can you make Mary J Blige sound any better than she already does?
If there is one overriding feeling that beams from every note of this record, it’s that these lot found that task very liberating. Disclosure weren’t writing with the future of UK house music cradled in their little minds, Emeli Sande wasn’t making songs to perform at global ceremonies and Sam Smith didn’t have the anxiety of tackling America sitting on his shoulder and farting in his ear.
Regardless of what you think of the personal output of any of these artists, you have to admit that they just know how to write a fucking pop song, and that is most evident on the painfully addictive piano beat sorrows of “Whole Damn Year” which is written by Mary, Emeli Sande and young star Knox Brown, and produced by Naughty Boy.
Mix all these twenty somethings with seasoned heads like 80s pop guy Eg White (Adele, Florence, Sam Smith) and American producer Rodney Jerkins (Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston) and you’ve got a pretty flawless recipe for success.
Here’s the thing, I reckon Mary J Blige could sing over the Native American pan pipes band that plays outside Shepherd’s Bush station on my commute home and make them sound like The Roots on a good night. So you can imagine how transcendent it sounds when it’s riding on the work of these collaborators.
What her voice does so brilliantly, is nailing this sort of wise girl realness, like she’s lived a million lives, but at the same time she’s carrying the woes of every single one. And when she’s not churning all that into the soulful poetry of the album’s first half, she’s packaging it into the word F I E R C E that rubber stamps it’s beaty core. Mary J Blige’s voice is the sound of being in a pitch black room and feeling scared, but still snarling like a tiger at anything that dares to fucking move.
The videos that have surfaced as a result of this album just pay testament to how good the music is. First, there’s the one mic, one take video of “Therapy”, and then there is the behind the scenes of “Pick Me Up” (above) which shows her finishing the song in a studio, and then heading straight to a London nightclub in a taxi, handing it to the DJ and toasting the crowd into a frenzy. Aye, she’s back.
You can follow Joe on Twitter: @cide_benengeli