After famously proclaiming that there would be “No More Drama” in her life in 2001, Mary J. Blige seemed to finally find real love when she married her manager, Martin “Kendu” Isaacs, in 2003. But after the couple’s split last year — and the ongoing divorce battle that has reached Empire-level soap operatics — the drama is back in a big way.
Yet her divorce album, Strength of a Woman — the follow-up to 2014’s woefully underappreciated The London Sessions — does not mark the return of the young and restless MJB whose music thrived on pain. This Mary is, for the most part, above the hateration. In fact, the only time she expresses full-blown bitterness is on “Set Me Free,” which hints at some of the dirty details behind her breakup. Blige comes out swinging, spitting the lyrics: “Tell me how you figure that you made me and you gave me what I had before I met ya / And gon’ have it when you’re gone / And how you fix your mouth to say I owe you when you had another bitch and taking trips and shit with my money for so long.” On this fiery kissoff — one of four tunes that the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul co-wrote with her musical follower Jazmine Sullivan — she vows that “there’s a special place in hell for you” with some Aretha-esque flourishes.
Elsewhere, though, the tone is more muted and melancholy than you might expect from a scorned Blige. On the three consecutive ballads — “Indestructible,” “Thank You” and “Survivor” — that make up the bruised-but-not-beaten heart of the album, she is a resilient yet restrained force.
But the LP is missing a killer cut or two; the empowering title track is the closest thing to a classic MJB anthem. And Blige stumbles when she ventures into trap-infused territory on “Glow Up” (featuring Migos’ Quavo, DJ Khaled, and a wasted Missy Elliott), while the only song here for the dancerie — the soul-disco throwback “Find the Love” — pales next to the club jams on The London Sessions.
Blige fares better with the spiritual uplift that bookends Strength: the Kanye West-assisted “Love Yourself” and the straight-up gospel “Hello Father,” which riffs on Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America.” No matter what drama Mary may go through, she’s not going down.
“Set Me Free”
Liberated by telling the ugly truth, Blige lets it all out on this breakup ballad.
Sounding her most vulnerable, Auntie Mary schools about being invincible.