Mary J. Blige’s My Life Shows That Soul Reigns Supreme, 20 Years Later (Food For Thought)
Twenty years ago today (November 29, 1994), Mary J. Blige released her sophomore album, My Life. More than two years removed from MJB’s breakthrough Pop success surrounding What’s The 411?, the Yonkers, New Yorker made maintained her undeniable vocal skills, but changed directions in making her sophomore LP. With hits on her back and platinum status on her resume, Mary trusted her instincts, her audience, and her heart in making what is undoubtedly a Soul album in the age of Pop-R&B.
As a whole, so much R&B from the early 1990s has not aged gracefully. While Hip-Hop albums by Dr. Dre, The Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Doggy Dogg, Outkast, Nas, and Wu-Tang Clan are heralded as gold standards of creative excellence, many of their R&B counterparts are more or less viewed as bookmarks to a bygone era. Even early albums by R. Kelly and Usher (still thriving stars today) contain little music that is regularly analyzed, played in public venue, or constantly interpolated by the new class. Mary J. Blige thrived in being timeless, for several simple reasons—all of which unwound themselves immensely on My Life.
What’s The 411? scratched the surface of Blige’s depth. Introduced as an “around the way girl” with lots of feelings, the album maintained an upbeat pastiche. Drafting the blueprint for the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” Blige’s debut and remix counterpart employed stacks of reconsidered records from Audio Two, EPMD, Schoolly D, and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. The album was serious, but the party came first, with records exploring feelings, but never letting them completely take over in mood, theme, or tone.
My Life takes ownership of all of that stuff. Mary J’s public relationship with K-Ci Hailey (of Jodeci/K-Ci & JoJo) had become tabloid fodder, and the producer/writer she made hits with in ’92 was wearing her out in ’94. Although K-Ci had participated in the writing of My Life, Blige opened up her heart, her wounds, and her life—telling it so somebody else did not have to. Although 18 years later, many people would closely compare Nas’ Life Is Good to Marvin Gaye’s divorce LP, Here, My Dear, MJB’s My Life is certainly a considered influence. In real-time, Mary showed how hard it is to break-up, despite literal pain and toxic circumstances. The way Blige’s voice moved across the tracks, the pain was real, and the music was so reactionary that it felt like journal entries, too intimate to ever be performed.
Beyond just love, My Life, made no secret of Blige’s drug use and alcoholism. At a time when drugs were not glamorized (aside from weed-smoking), Blige was “Going Down” with a lifestyle that was more ruffneck than many rappers in her circle. Gently and honestly, this album opened up, almost as a public proclamation, something that MJB would hold herself to. “Be Happy” is so real that it hurt, putting clinical depression in a mainstream space, in a much different context than Hip-Hop/R&B adheres to today. Blige never portrayed herself as sad, as much as complicated. She was never emotional, as much as she presented her life as flawed. These qualities made her music endure, as few artists and albums have done this as purely and eloquently.
The production of My Life also showed great progression from 411. Less concerned with Hip-Hop marketing, this LP deftly sampled and re-purposed some vibes, moments, and attitudes from past records. Records like Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long” are not Pop-minded records that subconsciously connect the dots. Instead, records like that, and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” are careful crate selections that speak to Blige’s own definitively NYC upbringing, as well as just those in the know, who remember an era, a sound, a grit. Chucky Thompson and Puff Daddy assured that there was continuation from 411?, but made it clear that just as Mary was moving forward in her writing, so were they in the sounds that surrounded her.
Like so many albums in the ’60s and ’70s, My Life embraced the cover. Beyond simply sampling, Mary J. Blige tackled legendary contemporary standards like Carole King’s “A Natural Woman” (on some editions), or Rose Royce’s Car Wash epiphany, “I’m Goin’ Down.” Great music makes no bones about its influence or inspiration. Blige had the skills to warrant touching classic records, and she did so with grace and respect for the makers. These moments shined, and embraced an old Soul tradition. It was clear that My Life is anachronistic to so much of the ephemeral R&B Pop of the early 1990s. Simply put, this album is too real to not be a stone in the sand of music, Soul, and the life of Mary J. Blige.
Three times platinum today, My Life proved itself critically and commercially. The risks Blige took at this point in her career are still being rewarded with strong audience support and admiration. Additionally, the difference of one album to the next has been a shape of things to come from Blige, who frequently shifts producers, sound, and energy from album-to-album. Currently, the singer is preparing her London Sessions, an album that’s applying her life and times in writing, to the burgeoning Brit-Soul sound of Disclosure and Sam Smith.
Like so many great artists, with great albums, Blige is constantly held up to her 20-year-old work on My Life. Somehow the singer’s happier moments never seem to get the same level of celebration as her outcry. In all the promotion, The London Sessions appears to be marketed as a complicated time in the superstar’s life–even including the industry jargon of “sessions” as if capturing these moments in time is something very specific, a release. Likely true, that seems to hint at My Life.
As she fought to get clean, get free, and get happy, Mary J. connected with so many other women (and men) out for the same. The music cued to moments that were euphoric, and reminded everybody that great music lasts beyond the moment it’s made and played. Defying genre, era, and style, Mary J. Blige made a classic album, that beyond a touchstone in her career, seems to be the kind of album singers, MCs, and the like are trying to make in 2014. To do so, one has to truly let go of the guard, the pain, and the convention in the way Mary did, in showing her realness, her gifts, and in turn, her staying power.