Mary J. Blige’s new album, Strength of a Woman, is unapologetically devoted to heartbreak. Chronicling the strains and inevitable tears in a relationship, the album is inspired by the recent end of her 13-year marriage. For fans who’ve followed her career for the past quarter-century—yes, it’s been that long—Strength of a Woman feels like a return to vintage Mary, or as she once called her former self, “sad Mary.”
During those early years, she struggled with fame, substance abuse, and bad affairs, but made some of the best soul music in recent times, including the classic album, 1994’s My Life. But in the past decade or so, especially after 2005’s The Breakthrough, she’s recorded a sometimes-gratifying, often uneasy mix of self-help anthems and earnest attempts at recapturing the pop zeitgeist, regardless of her collaborators. Her last album, 2014’s The London Sessions, found her working with au courant chart-toppers like Sam Smith, Disclosure, and Emeli Sandé. For 2011’s My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1), she assembled a grab bag, including a cameo by Drake, a nostalgic look back at her Bronx B-girl days with Nas, and motivational tunes like “The Living Proof.”
Strength of a Woman is remarkably consistent. It indulges our desire to relive the vintage, somewhat mythical, Queen-of-Hip-Hop-Soul sound that she did so well early on in her career. Many of its tracks find her riffing over classic soul arrangements, just like when she used to cover quiet-storm chestnuts like “I’m Goin’ Down.” As this playlist demonstrates, she included a few breakup testimonials in every album, though they didn’t have as much purpose and artistic flair as now. Sad Mary never really went away.