Mary J. Blige, legend of hip-hop soul, has been branching out lately—her forthcoming album, The London Sessions, was made in collaboration with electronic duo Disclosure and British crooner Sam Smith. In the singles we’ve heard, that partnership inflected Blige’s R&B roots with some dancehall beats and doo-wop influences. But the latest song off the record, “Not Loving You,” is old-school Blige, a classic power ballad delivered with wrenching emotion and vocal virtuosity.
Sam Smith wrote the song, and though he’s got some pipes of his own the melody needs Blige’s warm timbre and effortless runs. She owns the song from the first somber piano chord, and the subtle production keeps her velvet voice at the fore. The lyrics speak to the painful give-and-take of a relationship (“There’s only so much I can do/ If you’re not loving you”), and Blige imbues every word with muted despair. It’s some of her best work in years.