Mary J. Blige The London Sessions

Mary J. BligeThe London Sessions
For someone historically known as the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," Mary J. Blige's more successful albums have always captured emotional distress stemming from whatever drama she was enduring in her life at the time. Simply put, happy Mary was boring Mary, making an inverted model that was bad for her wellbeing but great for the charts. She's been relatively happy in recent years; her artistic output had mirrored that.

"The London Sessions" sees Blige adopt a back to basics approach that feels like a reboot: "I can't keep on doubting myself anymore," as she sings on "Doubt." As the story goes, a month spent across the pond working with English names like Sam Smith, Disclosure, Naughty Boy and Emeli Sandé spawned the project. The change of locale and production partners seems to have sparked an artistic renewal for the veteran singer.

Opening track "Therapy" perfectly captures Mary J. Blige in 2014. The tinkling piano strains of "Not Loving You" has her demonstrating her powerful range and exemplifies the album's stripped-down approach, while guitar-driven ballad "When You're Gone" shines, only slightly betraying its UK sensibilities as the chorus feels more at home in an English accent. "Right Now" and "Loving You" are ordinary dance-garage numbers, but readily remixable joints "Long Hard Look" and "Follow" make up for it and fashion Blige as a dance diva of sorts. "Whole Damn Year" is a clear standout, perfectly measuring old Mary with new Mary against a chill, hip-hop-flavoured beat. The London Sessions has a swanky premise, and finds Blige in an artistically intrepid mode. It's also one of her best efforts in recent years. (Universal)