Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman postured itself as a post-divorce battle cry. For an album this anticipated, the stakes were as high as Kendu Isaac’s delusions. Unfortunately, the end result left much to be desired, though this wasn’t the case at first glance. Strength of a Woman starts out with promise, but its potential all but evaporates by the end of its first half.
Post-Breakthrough Mary has often been hit or miss when it comes to her albums as a whole. Sure, she still gives us a gem or two, something remarkable given the painful, emotional journey she’s chonicled over the last 12 albums she’s released. Like her most recent projects, Strength of a Woman often tries to recapture the magic of personal masterpieces like My Life and The Breakthrough, but the end result seems to run away from her before we get the fully-realized, heart-wrenching gut punch Auntie Mary has been known for.
“Love Yourself” sets the right tone for the subject matter. When the horns kick in after the soft piano introduction, we know what time it is. Mary’s here to let us know that this is a time of healing and learning for her. The Kanye feature stands out on this track, and for once it’s for all the right reasons. Kanye is giving us 2004 The College Dropout flow, and I can’t help but smile at myself for growing nostalgic (and realizing that was over a decade ago).
“Thick Of It” is when the lyrics get a tad bit more obvious. Mary rap-sings to her no-good lover, asking him “who’s gonna love you like I do?”
“I ain’t no quitter, babe, but I’ll be damn if all these years I let you diss me, babe. I was there when no one wanted to stay with you, babe. You know I deserve more than this.”
Of course, that’s when we get to the lyrics of “Set Me Free.”
“There’s a special place in hell for you. You gon’ pay for what you did to me.”
And those are the tamest lyrics in that jazzy shade-fest of a track. Naturally, our expectation after these fiery back-to-back introductory tracks is for the momentum to lead us to a dizzying emotional climax. The torrential love letter that was My Life gave us “I’m Going Down” as its declaration. However, the rest of Strength Of a Woman struggles to keep things interesting.
“It’s Me” serves as a pseudo-reprise to “Set Me Free.” Though not an unpleasant track, I’m not left with any immediate impact like the previous 3. By the time “Glow Up” tags itself in with a squad consisting of Missy Elliott, DJ Khaled, and rapper-of-the-day Quavo, it becomes clear where the rest of the storyline is headed with lyrics like “How much did I warn you? I keep telling your ass what I’m gon’ do. You keep trying and trying my patience. Now you’re lost and confused and you’re pacing, you’re wasting your time.”
“Smile” is when things come full circle. With a little help from artist Prince Charlez, we get a glimpse of hope in this bitter divorce narrative. “If I tell the truth, I would say that I’ve been hurt many times before. So it’s hard for me to give anybody, anybody else love” is soon followed by “I feel strong. I feel well. I feel confident. I feel better about myself. You’re making me smile.”
And perhaps that’s all that really matters by the time you reach “Hello Father,” the album’s finale.
As someone who has lived through each of Mary’s eras and found something incredibly relatable to her painful love letters, inspirational shout-outs, and curb-stomping self-affirmations, there was a notable disconnect with Strength of a Woman. To be honest, perhaps that was the idea. Maybe this wasn’t meant to be the The Breakthrough Part 2 or (God forbid) My Life Part 3. Maybe the fireworks weren’t supposed to be as over-the-top and spectacular as we expected. Clearly, this album wasn’t for us; it was for Mary. And that’s fine.