The London Sessions isn’t actually Mary J. Blige’s first album this year. That would be the soundtrack to Think Like a Man Too—a commercial disappointment and an unfortunate example of an affliction faced by countless other career artists: In attempting to recapture her earlier magic, Blige came off instead like someone else trying to sound like Mary J. Blige. It took ”F for You,” a left-field collaboration with British dance darlings Disclosure, to give her the fresh direction she needed.
The success of that track led her to delve deeper into the vibrant U.K. dance scene, and the result is less a reinvention of Blige’s hip-hop-soul sound than a mutation of the dormant disco-diva gene in her DNA. She sounds right at home paired with producer Rodney ”Darkchild” Jerkins’ frothy funk on ”My Loving,” which recalls the brilliantly constructed four-on-the-floor work he did with Whitney Houston at the turn of the century. Though Sessions‘ ballads aren’t nearly as bracing, the Emeli Sandé-assisted ”Whole Damn Year” and the minimalist closer ”Worth My Time” tap smartly into Blige’s endless well of world-weary pathos, which keeps all the icy production from becoming bloodless. Her big, emotive voice jells on both the thumping Disclosure reunion ”Right Now” and ”Therapy,” a harmonious matchup with professed admirer Sam Smith (he brought her on stage as the sole guest at his Apollo Theater debut earlier this year). With this crew of beat-obsessed Brits—some of whom weren’t alive when What’s the 411? dropped—Blige has discovered exciting new playmates and the gatekeepers to her sonic fountain of youth. B+