The_London_Sessions[xrr rating=3.5/5]When beloved, seasoned artists look to reinvent themselves in some way, they typically look at what’s popular, what sounds appealing to them and where they could fit in the modern musical landscape. As it happens, Mary J. Blige, 22 years after her debut album, looked to London, to the diverse talents of artists like Disclosure, Sam Smith and Emeli Sandé. The whole concept of The London Sessions implies that Blige felt some dissatisfaction with the path she’s charted in recent years, releasing passable, conventional R&B music for many of the same fans who purchased her music in 1992. Maybe she wanted to expand her audience or maybe she wanted to try something different, but she most likely wanted a little of both, so she sought out the clean, smooth, modern sound of London pop.

The London Sessions is comprised of two wholly distinguishable parts. The first four songs feature production that brings out the natural elements of both Blige’s voice and the instrumentation, lending the feel of a live performance to the compositions that contemporary R&B artists typically eschew for digital synths and club-banging 808s. “Therapy,” the album opener, is a definite highlight of this section, an equally soulful and bluesy number that recalls Amy Winehouse’s uniquely upbeat style with hummed background vocals, sharp guitar and organ stings and a drum sound that’s big, crisp and just a little dirty.

Still, the first section of The London Sessions, despite the bright production, fails to distinguish itself from Blige’s lackluster output in recent years. It’s mainly the fault of the songwriting: “Not Loving You” is a loungey piano ballad that hits all the obvious notes without any revealing nuance, “When You’re Gone” follows suit while stripped down to an acoustic guitar and a mournful string section and “Doubt”—while it manages to build to a satisfying instrumental climax—makes little use of Blige’s incredible talent by forcing the singer into cookie-cutter vocal melodies. While Blige has keenly made use of London’s talented music producers to bring life to her fading formula, the songs themselves draw on the same hackneyed ballads that took the drive out of her music in the first place, effectively cancelling out the fresher elements in play.

Luckily, the second half of The London Sessions is far more dynamic and experimental as the singer calls on the world of contemporary dance music to update her hip-hop soul sound that defined the genre in the ‘90s. One would expect a veteran singer like Blige to naturally favor a classic analog sound over more modern electronic elements, but she takes to the state-of-the-art production styles of artists like Disclosure and Naughty Boy surprisingly organically. Her soulful vocals provide the static house beats with a grounded humanity, a juxtaposition that easily makes the two Disclosure collaborations on The London Sessions, “Right Now” and “Follow,” clear standouts. Meanwhile, “Whole Damn Year” takes the somber piano melodies that dull earlier tracks and gives it a much needed hip-hop drum machine groove and a tighter structure, allowing Blige to express her sensual edge freely. Overall, unlike the album’s first half, the unique production on the latter half is original enough to heighten the relatively tame songwriting into the territory of great music.

There’s no denying that a classic R&B diva like Blige experimenting with hot artists at the forefront of contemporary dance music is far more interesting than her embracing the sound of modern blue-eyed soul hitmakers like Adele and Sam Smith. Faithful fans of Blige will appreciate her making only minor adjustments to her style in the album’s first section, of course, while younger generations will find her shift into a soulful electronic sound on the album’s second half more appealing, but it’s a shame she couldn’t quite commit to one or the other for The London Sessions. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to the album is that there’s something for everyone, and in that way, Blige seems to have gotten a lot out of the London experience. It may not be the bold new direction for the singer that was initially teased, but it’s one of her best records in years, and that’s its own accomplishment.

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