Mary J. Blige’s ‘Strength of a Woman’ Finds Power In Vulnerability [ALBUM REVIEW]
In the R&B world, few women have had as big an impact as Mary J. Blige, who has enjoyed 25 years at the top of the music world. Building a legacy that earned her the title of "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” the Yonkers native became the voice for a generation of young black women searching for love and loyalty with a string of classic albums, including What’s The 411, My Life, Share My World and Mary, which found her attempting to pick up the pieces of her shattered hart.
Fueled by heartbreak and drug addiction, the lyrics and vocals on those albums were so emotionally raw that when Mary J. Bilge began to defeat her demons and move onto a life of happiness, a number of fans would jokingly reminisce on the days of her destructive relationships with Jodeci member K-Ci Hailey and R&B singer Case, along with the fallouts that followed them.
Embarking on a road to sobriety would be Blige’s first step towards turning over a new leaf, but it would be her relationship and subsequent marriage to Kendu Issacs that would also play a huge role in her evolution as a person and an artist, trading in her gruff exterior for a more tender countenance. Rampant tales of infidelity and emotional turmoil soon replaced with lyrics of love, empowerment and triumph. Remaining one of the most bankable female stars in R&B throughout the 2000s, Mary would continue to add onto her legacy and grow into her new role as a matriarch and a symbol of strength within the R&B and hip-hop community.
However, it’s recently been revealed that drama and heartache has found its way into Mary’s life once again, in the form of husband Kendu Issacs’ alleged infidelity, which resulted in Mary filing for a divorce in July 2016 after 12 years of marriage. With rumors alleging that Issacs’ was having an affair with Blige’s own artist, Starshell, and Mary claiming that Issacs spent over $420,000 on his mistress, many were sympathetic to the R&B legend’s plight, but when it was announced that Mary would be releasing her thirteenth studio album, Strength of a Woman during the midst of the divorce, fans were eager to see if the same Mary that had once sung tales of sorrow would return to form.
“Love Yourself,” Strength of a Woman’s opening track, is an early indicator of what fans can expect from the Grammy Award-winning singer and finds her singing passionately over a soul sample, with lyrics like, "Truth can be the sweetest pain / It can mess up everything” and “You gotta feed yourself / Before you feed somebody else / You gotta stay open and don't be foolish / 'Cause everybody don't mean you well” immediately setting the tone. Produced by DJ Camper and featuring Kanye West, who barrels through his verse with an intense fervor, “Love Yourself” is a great first impression and gets Strength of a Woman off to an electric start.
"Love ain't just black and white / Ain't that simple, it gets hard to tell whose wrong or right,” Mary reasons on “Thick of It,” the first single released from her project. Produced by DJ Camper, the song features Mary spewing even more vitriol at her soon-to-be ex-husband. But the gloves truly come off on “Set Me Free,” as Mary opens her heart over regal horns, piano keys and delicate snares. “How you fix your mouth to say I owe you when you had another bitch and taking trips and s--- with my money for so long,” she asks, adding, “there's a special place in hell for you."
Strength of a Woman’s momentum is continued with the Brandon "Bam" Hodges-produced “It's Me,” a track that voices the concerns that led Mary to begin to question the state of her marriage. But the mood brightens up a bit on “Glow Up,” which features gust appearances from Missy Elliott, DJ Khaled and Quavo.
On the song, Mary displays her resolve as she continues to throw her soon-to-be ex-husband under the bus. “You can be mad if you wanna / Really I'd be mad too if I lost a real dime ass woman," she sings. With additional vocals by Jazmine Sullivan and moral support from DJ Khaled, “Glow Up” avoids coming off as a contrived attempt at appealing to a younger crowd.
“Must've been crazy to think that you loved me / I saw all the signs but I just couldn't say nothing” Mary admits on the Brandon "Bam" Hodges-produced “U + Me (Love Lesson)," as she begins to overcome her heartache and look at the experience as a blessing in disguise and a lesson learned. Continuing to build her resolve and attempt to reach the other side of heartbreak, Mary reminds herself of her value, urging listeners to “think about how valuable you are,” and to stay open to receiving love, a message that’s also applicable to herself. Epic background vocals on the song are provided by R&B vocalist Prince Charles Henshaw who also makes an impressive guest appearance on “Smile."
On the defiant tune “Survivor,” Mary displays her determination to weather the storm as she takes a few more shots at her former love, pointing to his alleged verbal abuse in regards to a decline of her record sales. "He keep telling me ‘Mary, it’s over, had your run, but girl, look at the numbers, maybe you should just quit it," she sings.
Strength of a Woman is an album of coming full circle and overcoming sadness and internal despair. But Mary also sprinkled in some feel-good party songs that ratchet up the tempo. One of them being the Lamb and Bigg D-produced “Find the Love." While Mary keeps the tracklist relatively sparse, one of the bigger names on the album is KAYTRANADA, who, along with BADBADNOTGOOD, contributes the jittery backdrop on “Telling the Truth.”
Legendary hitmaker Teddy Riley delivers his own contribution to Strength of a Woman with his production on the anthemic title track. Another ballad, “Hello Father,” produced by Hit-Boy, finds the veteran singer professing her faith in God, whom she credits for helping her get through her pending divorce. “Hello Father, thank you so much / I’m so grateful for all your love,” she sings.
Compiling a collection of songs that are a testament to Mary's ability to throw caution to wind and air out her dirty laundry for the world to see. Strength of a Woman is well-versed in the matters of love and Mary takes the time to wallow in her grief, but also deliver a blueprint to reclaim one's own hart and heal the wounds.
Strength of a Woman is a testament to Mary J. Blige's vulnerability, as well as her tenacity. The veteran singer has learned the value of turning pain and abuse into motivation, strength and empowerment.