Mary J. Blige, "Strength of a Woman" (Capitol)
Let's state the obvious here: Mary J. Blige has a way with hurt. Songs like "Not Gon' Cry" and "No More Drama" might even prove that Blige is at her best when she's at her worst.
Her latest set, "Strength of a Woman," supports that almost-fact.
Sure, "happy Mary" can make a hit. (Please see: 2001's "Family Affair" in this dancery.) But "scorned Mary" can make you feel both her pain and your own — every cut, every bruise, every pang of fragile hope.
On "Strength of a Woman," Blige harnesses that power. Perhaps thanks in no small part to real-life drama with her estranged husband Martin "Kendu" Isaacs, from whom she filed for divorce last year. Lead single "Thick of It" — one of four heart-wrenching standouts co-written by Jazmine Sullivan — movingly captures Blige torn between staying and walking away.
But in no uncertain terms is Blige as ready to go as on the quietly scathing "Set Me Free," also co-written by Sullivan. "How you fix your mouth to say I owe you/When you had another (chick) and taking trips.../With my money." Blige sings, later adding, "There's a special place in hell for you/You gon' pay for what you did to me."
The words are a little startling, but it brings a certain pleasure to hear Blige flexing her emotional muscle against the hurt. She's down, but she's not out, as she declares on the Kanye West-assisted "Love Yourself," then again on the triumphant "Survivor." The up-tempo "Find the Love" is also a winner, breaking through like a rainbow after the storm.
Missy Elliott might be Blige's best guest, popping up on "Glow Up," which also features DJ Khaled and Quavo from the rap trio Migos. Contributors also include producers DJ Camper, KAYTRANADA, BADBADNOTGOOD and Teddy Riley, among others.
The hazy "Indestructible" is beautiful, with Blige seeming to advise — not just the audience — but herself: "I know your heart is aching/But you can't let him break it baby/You gotta love like you've never been hurt/To find a love that you deserve."
Maybe that's why fans cling to "sad Mary"; if, despite her troubles, she soldiers on, then maybe everyone else can, too.
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Melanie J. Sims, The Associated Press