Mary J Blige’s “My Life” Turns 20

Celebrating the complexities of black female life in the “hip-hop soul” era—a layer of emotion between the musical notes

In 1994, in the silent, yet dense space between the jovial and melancholy, lay Mary J. Blige. That year, she released My Life, her second full-length album, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on November 28th, 2014. She was not like any other R&B starlet of that era. There was something about her eyes that captured a wariness. Her vocal conviction resonated with those of us who had been raised on blues records. She was only 23-years-old, but she had a strength that belied her innocence and set her apart from her contemporaries. She had seen too much and been loved too little. We felt it, and understood.

My friends and I referred to her as “Mary.” We felt connected to her because My Life showed an emotional side of black women rarely seen—vulnerable and longing for love and acceptance. During the blues era, women like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith were raw and honest about their dysfunctions, and provided a “voice for the voiceless” for marginalized women’s experiences, but that time had long since passed. With My Life, we saw that beneath Blige’s trademark hats and platinum blond hair, she was suffering from the pains of a dysfunctional childhood, an intense love affair, and substance abuse.

In the early 1990s, R&B was going through growing pains, trying to remain relevant in a time when hip-hop dominated the airwaves. Artists like Chaka Khan and Jody Watley had not only garnered hit singles, but also provided an alternative image of black womanhood. However, no female artists bridged hip-hop and R&B in a way that went beyond just including a guest rapper on a track. We needed a younger female artist who wasn’t so glossy and appealed to young urbanites who might have found Khan, Watley and even the stoic and middle-class Whitney Houston out of their reach. A young and more relatable female artist that could serve as a bridge to a new audience was needed.

Mary was the girl you saw on the corner every afternoon after school. She was beautiful, but still approachable. On the cover of her debut, What’s the 411?, she had a tomboy look with her oversized Too Black Guys t-shirts. With My Life, she had morphed into a sleek starlet. While we might have not known all of the lyrics, we all knew the intro:

“How can I love somebody else / when I can’t love myself enough to know /
when it’s time / time to let go?”

Yes, even though we had heard that Mary could be hostile to journalists and cold to those around her, the pleading was far from diva-like. Her raw vulnerability made us feel like we weren’t the only ones challenged with building our self-esteem.

A Vietnam War veteran, Mary’s father suffered from post-traumatic stress and left the family when she was five. She grew up with her mother, who was fond of socializing over card games and would play gospel and soul records, greatly influencing the singer’s musical knowledge and future songwriting. In interviews conducted after My Life was released, Mary admitted that her teenage years were tumultuous, with more than a few school suspensions for fighting. Singing was something that she knew she could do, and one of the only things she was praised for. Her stepfather recorded Mary singing Anita Baker’s “Caught Up In The Rapture,” and gave it to a friend, R&B singer Jeff Redd, who in turn gave it to the head of his record company, Uptown’s Andre Harrell.

When she signed with Uptown, Mary was only their third female artist and the youngest on the roster. “She has a musical library in her head,” said famed producer Hank Shocklee, who produced 1997’s Share My World. “She knows all the classic singers and MCs and not just their hits—she knows the B-sides.”

Sean “Puffy” Combs successfully harnessed Mary’s abundant vocal power

Sean Combs, then known as Puffy, was interning at Uptown before he dropped out of Howard University to work as the youngest executive at the label. He expanded upon the new jack swing sound originated by singer Teddy Riley, who was initially signed to Uptown as part of the R&B group Guy.

Combs modernized new jack swing, weaving more soulful samples into the production for Father MC, Christopher Williams, Monifah, Soul for Real, and Heavy D & The Boyz. “It wasn’t until Puffy became VP of A&R that Mary broke through,” believes veteran journalist Michael Gonzales. “Andre had her doing background vocals for Father MC and [other] artists, but Puff really saw her for what she could be. He had a wider vision for her, but she brought into the studio all this information. She is basically an organic musical scholar.”

What’s the 411? was the first indication that Mary’s vocal and physical presence was unique, as her streetwise persona would separate her from other female artists. Almost immediately after its July 28, 1992 release, What’s the 411? received positive reviews and sold 2.2 million albums, often being billed as one of the most important albums of the 90s. Combs applied a straight new jack swing foundation to anchor her vocals, and in the accompanying video, stylists clothed her in all black: baseball cap, an oversized T-shirt and slim black pants and boots, signifying that the girl was not a starlet, but someone whom you might see in your neighborhood.

Mary was quickly labelled the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” tying her to a fresh sound that first emerged with Jodeci. But Blige’s success expanded it into a new marketing demographic, attracting listeners whose musical palates had previously eschewed hip-hop as being too masculine and hard. “Hip-hop soul” was later used to describe the sound of singers R. Kelly, Montell Jordan and TLC, cementing it as an official sub-category of R&B.

Today’s young artists get media training before their first album drops, but Mary was thrust into the spotlight without professional preparation for the sudden burst of fame. In 1994, Lauryn Hill came onto the scene with the Fugees after a career as an actor and a formal, post-secondary education. Compared to Lauryn, Mary was rough around the edges. Her reputation for abrasiveness was a problem since she had literally been plucked from her rough Yonkers neighborhood before her debut. Uptown eventually sent her for etiquette training that she initially resisted, but eventually relented to.

Combs asked producer Chucky Thompson, his friend from Howard, to work on My Life. Thompson brought his DC-influenced, go-go sensibilities to the mix. He later went on to become one of the first “Hitmen,” the crew of Bad Boy Records in-house producers. Thompson also produced the majority of Faith Evan’s debut, Faith. Together, Combs and Thompson blended quiet storm favorites with the latest hip-hop beats. R&B fans were treated to not only some of the best hip-hop artists within the genre, but singers whose church influences made listeners feel, and not just hear, what they sang.

By the time he began production on My Life, Combs had been fired from Uptown. Rumours flew that Harrell fired him because of the bad publicity from the 1991 concert Combs organized featuring Heavy D for an HIV / AIDS benefit that turned deadly after a stampede. Others suggested straight-up jealousy and inflated egos were to blame. Combs proved to be more of a shrewd businessman than his boss. Not only had he re-invented the careers of several of the label’s roster, but it was rumored that he was in negotiations to start his own label, Bad Boy Records. Eventually, he took just one artist, The Notorious B.I.G., to Bad Boy.

Regardless, Combs continued to work with Uptown artists, often booking out an entire studio and having some of the best and brightest working out of their own recording rooms. He would have Thompson working on tracks for Mary in one, The Notorious B.I.G would be working in a room down the hall and Faith Evans, who was not only co-writing tracks for My Life but also working on her own debut, in another.

What made My Life less cookie-cutter than its predecessor was the careful application of more mid-tempo samples from veteran artists, such as Roy Ayers (“My Life”) Curtis Mayfield (“I’m The Only Woman”), Isaac Hayes (“I Love You”), and Al Green (“No One Else”). They mirrored the soulfulness of Mary’s jazzy inflections, and matched both her melancholy lyrics and her desire for love in real life, if the talk around the studio was true. In comparison to What’s the 411?, there was more soul-searching that perfectly matched the vintage sound, transitioning Mary from a ‘round-the-way streetwise teenager into a young woman who had clearly experienced too much emotional loss for her young age.

The combination of heartfelt lyrics, along with the rumors swirling around about Mary ’s personal life, made My Life even more intriguing. Despite the etiquette training she received after What the 411?, she still exhibited signs of impatience and rudeness. After a couple of verbal altercations with journalists (including a post-My Life altercation in which she kicked former Rolling Stone writer Toure out of a limo), it was evident that her impatience and her distrust in others was still an issue. She was ill-equipped to deal with the press, not having the patience or professionalism to market herself in a way to garner more admirers, not deter them.

K-Ci of Jodeci and Mary had a tumultuous relationship

Mary dated Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey for six years, and there had been reports that the relationship was abusive during the recording of My Life. Many years later she confirmed the rumors-without mentioning Ki-Ci by name, stating that she felt that so physically unattractive that she felt she deserved it. In a 2011 interview, Mary admitted that she was fighting drug and alcohol addiction at the time. And for the first time, she revealed that she was sexually abused as a child. She had not told anyone, including her family, until she was 33. “After years of trying to bury it and trying to numb the pain, I realized I needed to get it out, or else no matter what amazing things happened in my life, I was still going to suffer,” she said. “I don’t want people looking at me and feeling sorry for me. I’m a grown-up, and I can handle this now.”

In 2011, Mary released My Life II…The Journey Continues (Act 1), which was 2012’s best selling R&B album. Eschewing the retro-soul musical production of the original, she focused on club bangers, collaborating with Nas and Busta Rhymes, Drake, and recording an ill-advised, electro-lite cover of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody.” She geared the sequel to get people to dance. A Rolling Stone album review called My Life II “admirably unfashionable, staying in her sweet spot of mid-tempo hip-hop soul.”

But the album lacked the raw emotionality of the original. By this time, Mary was a multi-millionaire, happily married, sober, and had recorded singles with the likes of Bono, Elton John, and George Michael. Perhaps the personal ache that resonated with so many people on My Life simply dissipated with time. Or maybe it was a simple move by the record company to tie this record to her last big album.

Mary performs with Disclosure at Coachella 2014 in California

More recently, in February of 2014, Mary appeared on a remix of U.K. dance artist Disclosure’s hit single “F for You.” The collaboration was spectacularly well-received and seemed to inspire Mary towards a new creative direction. Blige’s 12th album, The London Sessions, was released in November 24th, 2014 in the U.K. and December 2nd, 2014 in the U.S., almost 20 years to the date after the release of My Life. Collaborating with a host of young British acts, including Disclosure, Emeli Sandé and vocalist Sam Smith, the results are ten new songs of futuristic dance grooves with a classic club feel. Led by Mary’s ever-powerful vocal range, The London Sessions is capably executive-produced by longtime collaborator Rodney Jerkins.

Regardless of the record company’s motive behind the title of the 2011 album, the decision acknowledged that My Life was an extremely important album for Mary and for black music. The intertwining of emotional narrative with a fresh musical style still resonates with so many people. It also signified not just an important musical transition within the R&B and hip-hop industry, but a coming-of-age story for young black women throughout generations.

The album also carved out a more significant role for black women in hip-hop. The success of My Life gave record companies the confidence to sign a more diverse roster of female artists who represented the social and cultural changes outside of the mythical, idealist versions of what we thought music should be. Female rappers, such as Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim were positioned as just one aspect of black female life, emboldened by their inner strength and sexual prowess. Eclectic singers like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Angie Brown displayed an honesty about their lives and their struggles with love and self-acceptance. Because of Mary, all these women went on to empower younger generations by eschewing stereotypical notions within the world that demanded that we remain passive. They represented a younger face that people could admire, acknowledging that the struggles of past generations had carried on, even within our hyper-capitalist and materialistic culture.

There’s another important aspect about My Life for women who were Mary’s age in 1994. They said she was able to convey the unspeakable parts of pain and sadness simply through a moan, or even a sigh. It wasn’t the lyrics that stayed with us (now older) women over the 20 years since the album was released to the world. It was that extra layer of emotion that fell between the musical notes, her deepest recesses of vulnerability. Even to this day, there’s no one quite like Mary.

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