Why Does Mary J. Blige Sound Different?

Mary J. Blige was fearful. She’ll tell you. Scared to grow; hesitant to take her hip-hop and R&B audience into this new space that fascinated her. People change. Without change there is no progression and being stagnant isn’t an MJB characteristic. So she traveled to London and experimented with some young Brits that she felt was making some of the best soul music on the planet. Their material wasn’t by the numbers. In her opinion, Sam Smith, Jimmy Napes, Disclosure, Emile Sande and Naughty Boy weren’t working within an industry-standard formula. Watching the documentary that accompanies her 13th studio album, The London Sessions, it’s clearly the motivation Mary was looking for.

She refers to this process as the evolution of Mary J. Blige. It’s a peculiar tag considering she’s evolved several times over the last 23 years in the business. There is fresh-faced Mary. Sad Mary. Dysfunctional Mary. Saved Mary. Happy Mary. Even happier Mary. But she may have a point. Recording with live instruments and ditching the 2-track process for a more big-band approach—something that Elton John told her she was equipped for—has produced Studious Mary. When she enters the studio with these young Brits she’s there to learn and experiment with new-school musical thoughts. She knows she doesn’t do high notes well so a majority of this album will be in her low register. She will talk about therapy (“Therapy”) on one record. She’ll then battle her worse enemy, which, apparently is herself on another. On the latter, Mary confronts the voice in her head that tells her she can’t do…anything. It’s a relatable concept for sure and one of the sonic highlights of the doc.

When an artist talks about life-altering experiences it’s often done in exaggerated tones. Sitting in front of an intimate audience after the documentary came to a close with Alan Light conducting a Q&A, Mary’s statement didn’t come off overstated. There’s a scene where Mary meets with Amy Winehouse’s father on the third anniversary of her passing. In conversation she finds out about Amy’s sharp sense of humor. This catches Mary off guard because she thought the UK singer was perpetually unhappy. It’s a revelation, albeit tiny, which stands as a summation of MJB’s London experience. There will be traces of What’s the 411? and My Life Mary. You’ll find hints of the woman who made the The Breakthrough. But as a whole this is a new discovery for the Queen. Hopefully her kingdom of fans remains wholly loyal as they have thus far.