A Love Jones: Still Getting By with Method Man & Mary J. Blige 20 Years Later (Food For Thought)
Released twenty years ago today (April 25, 1995), Method Man’s “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By” featuring Mary J. Blige was not the first duet in Hip-Hop, nor the first Hip-Hop love song, but it seemed to hit a particularly powerful nerve; one that reverberates with the song’s effects, two decades later. A remix to Meth’s “All I Need” infused with the timeless 1968 Motown classic “You’re All I Need to Get By” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the Grammy-winning song produced by Puffy was, for many, a much-needed representation of Black love. With its universal themes of loyalty, friendship and undying support for one another, its message transcended race and demographics, and it now stands toe-to-toe with love songs by any artist, from any genre. Starring an MC who embodied the gritty realities of life in the hood alongside a singer who vocalized the pain and triumph of an entire generation of women, the song not only serves as a testament to creative genius but, perhaps more importantly, a reminder of the possibility of finding love, even in the harshest of circumstances.
Thematically similar to songs like Biggie’s 1994 “Me and My Bitch” (from which the line “lie together, cry together/I swear to God I hope we fuckin’ die together” is sampled) and the Lost Boyz’ 1996 single “Renee,” Meth & Mary’s love song describes the trying and tumultuous obstacles facing many young couples living in the hood. Meth mentions a time when he was “nothin’,” the “skies were gray,” and being “locked up North,” all of which are examples of imagery alluding to the loneliness, disillusionment, and incarceration facing swaths of men living in a system that works against them. His salvation? The “queen wit a crown that be down for whatever” who “made a brother feel like he was somethin’” and who says “’Baby, it’ll be okay.’” That acknowledgment, of the female partner’s ability to resurrect a downtrodden man, was especially powerful coming from an artist who, up until that point, was known as a representation of male machismo. In fact, he himself seemed to be acutely aware of the danger of losing his “cred,” and he can be heard yelling “this ain’t a love song!” in the background. Nevertheless, he has since made it known the song was written for a woman he loved as she lay right next to him.
A distinguishing characteristic of Meth & Mary’s duet was just that – it was a duet. Songs like “Me and My Bitch” and “Renee,” while both poignant depictions of a man’s love for his woman, did not include a female role. Mary J.’s inclusion helped to depict her, and the women she represented, as an equal partner in song and in life. Similar to the 1968 song on which it is based, Meth & Mary’s version is a tête-à-tête, arguably the formula behind the song’s success. The song could have simply used Tammi Terrell’s original singing on the chorus, but the decision to use Mary J., a contemporary archetype of the young Black female, added a relatability factor that may have otherwise been lost. Mary, at the time of the song’s release, was still being lauded for her 1994 album My Life, a soulful and sometimes heart-wrenching magnum opus detailing the pain related to overcoming substance-abuse dependency and an abusive relationship. Those experiences and her ability to prevail made her voice the perfect choice for this duet, as she was already a representation of what tenacity and love can do.
In a genre commonly berated for inundating the culture with negative images of women, this song was a relief from the misogyny. Along with other 1995 hits like Tupac’s “Dear Mama,” it was a not-too-common example of a Rap artist known more for his grit exposing a softer, more vulnerable side. For Method Man specifically, the song made him the undeniable sex symbol of the Wu-Tang Clan to millions of girls, including those who weren’t already fans. His referring to a woman as a “queen” was invaluable, not only because of its positive reinforcement, but also because it simply wasn’t the word “bitch” or “hoe.” Surely, there were similar songs from the era which didn’t degrade women, but none were as successful. Meth himself once said “We don’t treat every chick like that. Nobody wants to be treated like that, but the ones that act the part—hey, if it’s a fucking spade I’m gonna call it a spade. And if nobody holds our black women high, I do.”
Unlike most songs which reach a similar level of success, this song doesn’t have a truly definitive version. There’s the original, of course, but also two remixes. There are those who prefer the RZA-produced joint, juxtaposing his dark production style against the uplifting lyrical content. For others, it was the rendition with Puff Daddy’s touch. Luckily for us, both versions were released.
Twenty years later, the male rapper/female singer blueprint has become commonplace, from the Roots’ breakout single “You Got Me” featuring Erykah Badu (and Eve), to the early-aughts domination by Ja Rule and Ashanti, to more recent variations by Jay-Z and Beyonce. However, there seems to be something more perennial about the Method Man & Mary J. Blige interpretation that others are lacking. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell both passed away in the primes of their lives, and to many it might appear that Meth & Mary took the proverbial torch and kept it lighted.
Amanda Mester is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @CanEye_KickIt
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