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You put up with New York City on the off-hand chance that after any given long day of work you’ll be surprised with a free pair of tickets to see Mary J. Blige at the Beacon Theatre. On April 16th, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, Blige unveiled a fifty-minute American Express commercial about the making of her last album, The London Sessions, followed by a live performance.
Blige has been affixed in the popular landscape since her days as a young Sean Combs’ muse at Uptown — the first of many artists to make their bones signing over rap records. The two broke out with their What’s the 411 Remix album in which Puff took Blige’s fairly conventional debut and threw a Coogi on it, pairing the 22-year-old siren off with Biggie, C.L. Smooth and Heavy D, among others.
Blige matured into the patron saint of R&B/hip-hop fusion, practically inventing the modern form by singing hooks for Method Man, Jay-Z and Ghostface Killah along with her own intensely personal ballads that worked as well in the time they were released as they would’ve in the 60s and 70s. She’s had something of a lull over the past five-odd years, resurfacing occasionally with a good-enough hit that tracks decently on an album that comes and goes.
So it was with some surprise and fanfare that she jumped on a remix of Disclosure’s “F for You.” The precocious electronic sibling duo had won 2013 with Settle, an album whose success peaked with their urban crossover hit “Latch,” setting the stage for the collaboration with Blige. The remix worked beautifully and it’s not hard to understand why. Who needs to settle for English nerds playing with the dusty samples that populate the genre of soulful house when you can have a real life soul icon singing on your original productions? Logically, an album was to follow, and that album became The London Sessions.
Throughout the film and performance there was much talk of the struggle of the last few years. How The London Sessions is the culmination of a tumultuous period in Blige’s life (She took it for granted that the audience was well aware of said struggles. A Google search came up with a 3.4 million dollar tax lien). The narrative put forward by Blige and her documentary centered around The London Sessions, which marked an opportunity for growth and experimentation. After listening to the album, Blige sees change as the shallow distinction of working in another country, with producers whose accents sound slightly different from those she’s used to.
The narrative should be familiar to any listener with a passing interest in post-millennial R&B divas, from Kelly Rowland and Keisha Cole to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce. There’s a heavy level of fan service and messaging that comes with each project. The diva imagines herself an avatar for her fans, they celebrate along with her triumphs and weep along with her travails. It’s a reality show without the show. The idea seems to be that it’s not enough to expertly, brilliantly execute the vision of a team of writers and super producers. Each song needs to be an expression of personal experience, each album marking an era in the life of a beloved star. This is not to nitpck, but instructive in understanding where The London Sessions lost its way.
The “documentary” is a puff piece. If it seems familiar, it’s probably because you saw the equally opaque Beyonce: Life is but a Dream last summer on HBO, as Blige surely did before leaving for London. But in spite of itself, the heavily primped and manicured infomercial delivers process as the album is recorded, and what is at least the story the artist would like to convey to her fans. We see Mary in the studio with the young English brain trust. They are celebrated yes men, speaking of the diva with the reverence she deserves. We watch her belt out the songs effortlessly, inserting little inflections of emotion that have made her work so compelling over the past twenty odd years. But the crucial moment of the film and the album comes during the editing process, as the sessions have to be whittled down to the twelve songs that eventually comprised the project. Blige opens the deliberation by defiantly warning, “Don’t touch my ballads,” effectively telling the Brit punks, “Mary gon do Mary.” Disclosure ended up with credits on two songs.
It’s easy to imagine another version of The London Sessions where Blige truly put herself in the hands of the two brothers, who challenged her and delivered a pure work of soulful house. For Mary it would be the career re-invention she imagined this would be, introducing her to a new generation of fans on two continents and injecting life into her music. Instead, the project opens with four tone-setting ballads, delivered with varying levels of effectiveness but very much in the vein of the power pop Blige has subsisted on for the past few years: Maudlin tales of personal struggles and the resilience to thrive in spite of them. It’s more gospel than R&B, urban adult contemporary. Her anthem “Doubt” off the project plays a few times a week on New York’s WBLS along with the Steve Harvey Show and Earth Wind and Fire classics.
For every Johnny Cash who takes an abrupt left turn late in their career and allows a younger producer to direct their talent, there are a dozen Blige’s. You see it often in hip-hop, a young fan of a Rakim or Kool G Rap grows up, gets big, signs the veteran icon, and sees their good will go to seed, understanding why it is they haven’t heard a hit from their idol in over a decade. With The London Sessions Mary decisively embraced her irrelevance, eschewing more challenging material in a stocked pantry and going straight for low hanging comfort food.
Still, it was a stirring site seeing the one-time shorty in a felt bucket hat crouched on a rooftop with Method Man in full American Songbook mode, bringing the New York intelligentsia to their feet at the Beacon, about eighty blocks and a million miles away from where she was born in the Bronx. From here, it would appear to be a slow ascent to a modern R&B pantheon shared by Mariah and Janet. She’ll sell out stadiums as a legacy/nostalgia act every few years, beloved by a diehard demo who come to hear her beautiful instrument and the trademark melodies she shoehorns into every hit. But on Thursday night as the poised, regal diva strode off the stage without acknowledging her band, it was hard not to think about what was left on the table.