On Strength of a Woman, Mary J. Blige covers a lot of lyrical ground familiar to anyone who has heard her 11 previous studio albums. A significant fraction of this set's sentiments are clichéd. There are self-help platitudes such as "You gotta love yourself before you love someone else," along with timeworn redemptive declarations like "I was lost but now I'm found" and "Now I'm finally free to be me." In fairness, the stock phrases are delivered with conviction, understandably weighed with a sense of "Not this bull again." The alleged extramarital antics that dragged Blige back into this darkness, after all, are as clichéd as it gets. Clearly the time wasn't right for Blige to record a bunch of feel-good jams, but in the listener's favor, the anguish has also inspired the singer and her co-writers and producers -- Brandon Hodge, Darhyl Camper, Jr., Prince Charlez, and Jazmine Sullivan, along with many others -- to illustrate these ballads of confrontation and perseverance with enough specifics to distinguish them from the past work. Take "Set Me Free," where a swanky, winding backdrop supports stinging "hmph" lines like "You musta lost it -- n*gga, you won't get a dime," followed by "There's a special place in hell for you" in dismissive high register. A clinking Kaytranada collaboration ("Telling the Truth"), a back-stabbed weeper that bares Sullivan's unmistakable touch ("Thank You"), and a machine-soul ballad worthy of an extended 12" mix ("U + Me [Love Lesson]") likewise could not have been made at any other point in Blige's career. A few songs do depart from expressing pain and the documentation of recovery. Brightest of all is "Find the Love," pure early-'80s boogie throwback. Just beneath that is the title track, a theatrical empowerment anthem that would likely close just about any other album. Instead, extra punctuation is provided by "Hello Father," another gem. It contains one of the hour's best grooves, provided by Hit-Boy, and is all devotional finesse.
© Andy Kellman /TiVo