When I thought about what to write about this month, I was brought back to the message Bob Dylan shared with his song Gotta Serve Somebody from his Grammy-winning 1979 album Slow Train Coming:
You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a business man or some high-degree thief
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
So many artists get clouded by the business that surrounds the hit song industry that they forget that they are artists. As an artist, they serve the creative muse, an arising, a downloading, a sculpting, shaping of soul in sonic form. Or they and a creative team craft a song, look for hooks and figure out ways to best serve up a 3-to-5-minute nugget of a song that their fans will love. From the place of service, timeless classics seem to be born. When an artist serves that creative muse and then commits to a sincere, skilled refinement process in the production, what you get is a straight-from-the-soul song, that connects deeply to the listener.
In that spirit, I have been enjoying Mary J Blige’s new record Strength of a Woman, and the way it gives voice to her heart, to creative spark, to the human experience.
R&B and romantic comedies have one thing in common, and that is that while they can have a formula that is easy to grasp, very few actually succeed at creating something that hits it out of the park. There are lots of rom-coms and lots of R&B albums out there that are just kind of forgettable. Then there are the home runs. On Strength of a Woman, Blige hits it out of the park multiple times.
The magic sauce that makes the difference between forgettable and home run is authenticity, a well-crafted song that also happens to be genuine. Strength of a Woman is an intensely personal sharing by Blige as she moves through an acrimonious split from her husband (who also happens to have been her manager). Breakup albums are a volatile thing. When they are good, they can be positively brilliant (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill), but if they become a self-indulgent falling apart, they flop. I won’t name names of the flops because that’s not my style. But the good news is that on Strength of a Woman, Blige chooses to take an artist’s high road, letting her pain be of service to herself and to others. She shows a maturity on this record without losing her queen diva persona.
The leadoff track, “Love Yourself”, is the strongest song on the album. It’s a smoldering, slow-building groove with an excellent bass line and vintage feel. A repeated high-squealing trumpet motif is an insistent summons to the message she delivers: “You’ve got to love yourself, if you really want to be with someone else.” She’s hurting, but she never lets go for a second of the real value of love. Featuring a rap by Kanye West about empowerment, this song is a keeper.
“U + Me” is a well-built song that ripples off long, conversational lines that just sneak the rhyme in often enough for you to feel their expansive rhythm. Blige uses vocalization as background color and texture in many of her songs and it’s done to great effect here. “Thick of It” is an anthemic, whole-hearted lament for the end of a relationship with someone who didn’t treat her right.
The title track is pure heart, deeply grounded and passionate. It’s a beautiful expression of the fluid, loving and giving strength of a woman. The harmonies modulate and shift from one home tone to another in a natural and organic flow. It illustrates the power of feminine, yin energy, not needing to insist on a single key or chord progression or aggressive beat to communicate strength and force.
Some of the songs on the album felt like they could be longer, as though they could still be brought to a more complete expression. But Blige’s creative voice is continuing to mature, and she’s working with some excellent producers. The beats are great. She is such a consistent artist. I tend to love at least three or four tracks on every album she puts out. Strength of a Woman is no exception and when it’s good, it’s really good, up there with classics like Toni Braxton.
Rishi Deva is the CEO of Kupid’s Play Records. With two decades of experience in the music industry, Rishi has been nominated for numerous marketing awards and earned a Gold Record in the music industry for management.