Mary has decided to give the traditional blend of R&B and Hip Hop (or Hip Hop Soul) a rest, and chosen to move to London for a few months. I like to think her friend Eve had her sleeping on the couch in her London pad, as they discuss how British men are superior to their American counterparts. This, of course, is pure fantasy (I’m married after all), but “The London Sessions” was spawned because Mary felt the UK was offering something she finds lacking in the USA. What makes this latest album interesting is that it sounds very different to the polished “Love & Life” or “Growing Pains”. That’s not to say this isn’t polished, but it’s an organic, purer experience. The fact that Mary has stuck names of some of the heavyweights in UK music on the cover suggests that this is a side-project that is a combination of creative freedom and also accepting that Mary J. Blige (the brand) is becoming less relevant as each year ticks by. Except, the latter is simply not true. This album has sold well, perhaps because of the names affixed to the album cover, but I like to think its because Mary J. Blige has crafted one of her best albums to date.
The lead single “Right Now” is akin to previous, faster-paced moments in Mary’s career – possessing a level of head-nod that previous singles “Love at First Sight” or “Family Affair” possessed. It’s not an accurate representation of the rest of “The London Sessions” though, instead sounding like the glamorous walk through Heathrow airport, with immaculate make up and manicured nails on display. The rest of the album is a purer Mary J. experience, representing London’s sound – the style of music you’d expect to hear on a British radio station. That’s not to say “Right Now” doesn’t sound “London” (it’s produced by Disclosure after all), but I do feel it is the correct lead single, simply because it acts as the perfect balance of young Mary and the current Mary. It’s got enough of that Hip Hop Soul we know and love to suck us in to an album that for the most part, isn’t Hip Hop Soul.
“Nobody But You” is a typical MJ Cole production, but for a Brit such as myself who was raised on his classic summer anthem “Sincere”, Cole’s style of upbeat garage is nothing new. To many of Mary’s fans though, it could well be. Thankfully, many of those fans have embraced this album (and critics too), perhaps agreeing with what Mary has been quoted as saying, that she is trying to bring some of this “free” sound that is still available on the radio in the UK, but is sorely lacking in the United States.
With that, “The London Sessions” succeeds; it’s an interesting experience, that flows together surprisingly well. I found myself listening to the Naughty Boy produced “Pick Me Up” and enjoying the switch-up without realizing that it was merely a cunning mix in to the following track “Follow”. Produced by Disclosure no less, “Follow” is the biggest deviation from Mary’s traditional sound; it’s flat out funky house. It’s difficult to imagine somebody as quirky as Dizzee Rascal using this instrumental, let alone Mary J. Blige. Even for those who aren’t willing to embrace current sensations, or feel Mary should be dictating rather than following the musical landscape – she’s included tracks like “Long Hard Look”. Craze & Hoax provide a thumping production that will have even the most hardened rap fans foaming at the ears.
The one thing holding back this album is the constant love and relationships theme, which inevitably makes up any Mary J. record. Clearly, this stuff is Mary’s bread and butter, she could write love songs in her sleep. Yet she has brought in Emeli Sande to co-write “Whole Damn Year” – an emotionally powerful track that sees Mary share how it took a year to get over a former lover. No wonder she left for London…
Mary J. Blige is a name that still holds weight in 2015, and the snippets in between songs with artists such as Sam Smith sharing their admiration and respect for Mary’s music is nice to hear. Can you imagine a legendary Hip Hop emcee collaborating with the cream of UK pop music? Busta Rhymes over some Disclosure would actually be better than 90% of his recent work, I’m sure of it. “The London Sessions” is Mary’s most mature work to date, with not a guest-rapper in sight. Maybe there aren’t any London emcees on Mary’s radar, but when Mary sounds as good as she ever has, and the music is consistently excellent, who needs rappers spoiling it?