I’ve been a fan of Mary J Blige, the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, ever since What’s The 411? came out in 1992 and so was eagerly awaiting her latest album, The London Sessions. It promised something a little bit different from the Grammy Award winning singer. Then D’Angelo dropped his new album Black Messiah with virtually no warning. I’ve waited 14 years for this to come out, ever since his acclaimed 2000 album, Voodoo. Sorry, Mary!
The first thing you notice about Black Messiah is the sleeve. It’s a picture of a demonstration with protesters in the now familiar “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” stance. Inside the cover D’Angelo writes:
“Some will jump to the conclusion that I’m calling myself a Black Messiah. For me, the title is about all of us. It’s about the world… It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them.”
By no means all of the tracks are political and in some that are, such as “1000 Deaths”, it’s the dissonant music that effectively conjures up war at least as much as the lyrics. But “The Charade” makes it clear where D’Angelo stands: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk/Feet have bled a million miles we've walked/Revealing at the end of the day, the charade/With the veil off our eyes we’ll truly see/And we’ll march on/And it really won’t take too long/And it really won’t take us very long.”
It’s clear who some of D’Angelo’s influences are — Prince, Sly Stone, J Dilla — but this is an album that pushes the descriptions of soul and R’n’B to the limit. It isn't always easy to listen to. I’m not going to pretend that it’s the best ever album, but it’s worth the effort and the wait. What’s more, it was produced without any digital input and it’s been released on vinyl, which makes me happy.
So back to Mary J. Over a similar period, she’s been much more prolific than D’Angelo, although not really the better for that.
When Mary J Blige hit the music world, she was in stark contrast to most of her soul/R’n’B peers (think Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey). She was much grittier sounding, bringing hip hop into soul both in her own vocals and in collaborations with artists such as Method Man and Ghostface Killah. Over the years, though, I felt she became far too middle-of-the-road and lost her edge.
So when I heard she was spending a month or so in London over the summer to record her latest album I was intrigued. Blige’s reasoning was that “the UK is a better place to make music than the States,” because she felt that artists had more freedom to create the songs and sounds they want. In The London Sessions, she works with artists such as Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé and Disclosure. The album is very much of two halves — ballads then dance. In the ballads you can hear the quality of her voice, and as with much of her work, Blige addresses personal and emotional questions.
The album is well produced, but I felt a bit disappointed. That was partly because I’d just listened to Black Messiah.
The London Sessions is better than a number of Blige’s last few releases, but if you really want to hear what Mary J Blige is capable of you should go back to What’s The 411? or My Life.