A little over 15 years ago, at the 2002 Grammy Awards, Mary J. Blige performed one of her greatest exorcisms. This was seven months after the release of No More Drama, and she arrived on stage in a gold lamé suit, hair curled up in a windblown crop, to sing the album’s title track, a transcendent anthem that builds into a spiritual explosion. By the time the song reaches its climax, Blige is stalking the stage, wailing into the ether and miming a search for “demons” in the pulpit. Once again, she made it known that a spirit had been caught, that something deep inside was extracting itself out. She’s performed the song many times, at sad and glorious stages of her life, with various degrees of release, but the Grammy performance has stuck with me as peak Mary, some divine interpretative catharsis.
That was the beginning of a breakthrough. A year later, in December 2003, Blige married her manager, Kendu Isaacs, and seemed to have escaped a career-long lot in life as everyone’s unfortunate vessel designed to go in and out of her mind turning infinite pain into gold. Last week, in the thick of divorce, Blige released Strength of a Woman, an album about being back on the other side, in need of release, but better equipped to deal with it. An emotional massacre of her ex, this is more real life material from Blige, made more compelling by the story of her dying marriage. “This album was written from the perspective of me fighting for my marriage. And then when it all blew up in August, I had to start rewriting songs,” she said in an interview last week. “I needed to express myself and so it hurt, but it’s good. It’s good.”
In other interviews leading up to the album’s release, Blige has willed herself to speak about her husband’s suspected infidelity. (The latest rumor was that he cheated on her with a singer named Starshell, who Blige discovered and groomed.) And so it goes: accusations get exposed in songs about deception, instinct and survival, with spare, measured production that snaps and knocks in ways meant to pattern the process of soldiering on, in formation. Blige likes to dig into the feeling of seeing the wolf in his own clothing, describing how marriage changes a person and how betrayal can do that, too. She speaks directly to this duality on “Thank You” and “It’s Me,” where she sings, “You fell in love with who you’re looking at,” making the point that her other half transformed for the worst. The ministry is the message, and it all sounds better coming from Blige than it would from an artist who’s barely suffered.
Too often, Blige has had to serve both as her own therapist and a distant ear to the brokenhearted. Over the years, she’s built up enough of an emotional IQ and the language to articulate love, desperation and anger. On songs in the vein of “Thick of It,” she’s suspicious but buries her anxiety in the dorsals of her brain—“I hope that I’m wrong,” she sings instead, self-medicating on one of my favorites, “U + Me,” smooth both in flow and in the way it paints the portrait of a relationship criminal.
This is the sound of a woman willing herself through, partly by singing what she needs to hear (and what she thinks he needs to hear), providing wisdom for her former and current self on some of her most cutting and truthful material, if not her stickiest in her catalog. “Set Me Free” launches straight into freeform preaching, with a long rhetorical question that denotes exacerbation: “How you fix ya mouth to say I owe you, when you had another bitch and taking trips and shit with my money for so long?” She has to catch herself (“I’ma be alright...”), before she lets out an essential woo. She needs to save her strength and brace for impact, so she leans on a presumed fence for support, telling other women not to wind up in a hole, and reveling in the lesson as much as she can:
“You gotta love like you never been hurt to find a love that you deserve” (“Indestructible”)
“If I make it through hell and I come out alive, I got nothing to fear” (“Thick of It”)
“I’m finally free to be me” (“Set Me Free”)
“You made me cry, now it’s your turn” (“Glow Up”)
These are the times she has to call herself queen when she doesn’t feel like it. The secret to Mary is always her voice, whatever raw ingredient she puts in it that hurts her and us all the same. She’s broken again, aged imperfectly, but lest anyone be mistaken, the point is that she’s coming through the other side covered in diamonds. She’s not actually indestructible in love, but she is guaranteed to be fine.