Mary J. Blige & Grand Puba Gave Us The 411 On The Real Meaning Of Hip-Hop Soul (Video)
On July 28, 1992, Mary J. Blige released a debut album that would alter the course of contemporary R&B and Soul and introduce the world to a new Queen. What’s The 411? remains the keystone to her career, 25 years and 12 solo LPs later. A quarter of a century has passed since Miss Mary’s triple-platinum classic arrived and records like “Real Love,” “You Remind Me,” “My Love,” and “Love No Limit” set the tone for the kind of music she would make for the next 2 and a half decades: deeply personal, heartbreaking, and self-affirming songs about love, loss, pain, and resurrection. The songs she created for the genre are the blueprint on which artists like Faith Evans, Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Ashanti, and countless other sirens built their career paths. However, there is no contest when identifying the artist who most personifies Hip-Hop Soul – and perhaps no song more than What’s The 411?‘s title track encapsulates that sweet marriage of two worlds.
Featuring Grand Puba, “What’s The 411?” was not a single, but certainly the album’s signature example of Mary’s ability to shape a smooth, soulful sound on a beat that leaves heads bobbing. Although another rapper appears on the LP (and this version of “You Remind Me” features Greg Nice and there’s a Heavy D remix to “My Love”), the Busta Rhymes cut “Intro Talk” is precisely that, and doesn’t include any of Mary’s singing. Co-produced by Tony Dofat and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, “What’s The 411?” paired the Uptown Records new signee with the Brand Nubian rapper, but it wasn’t their only collaboration. On his own 1992 solo debut, Grand Puba featured Ms. Blige on “Check It Out,” though several months after their original pairing.
“What’s The 411?” spins a familiar tale: boy meets girl and boasts about his prowess but girl ain’t havin’ it and informs him as to why. “Check it, I’m not Keith Sweat, but bet that ass that i can make it last / Skirts turn their head so fast, they end up catching whiplash / If hun’s a monster, I’m Carl Lewis on the meter dash” Grand Puba spits. In turn, Mary asks him “Yeah ni**a, what makes ya different from the next ni**a? / Seen ya last week and ya couldn’t even speak / Ya try ta play like Mr. All Of That / But now ya wanna come to me with some chitchat?” It’s a tête-à-tête that can be found in other songs, surely (yet another 1992 track, Positive K’s “I Got A Man,” may come to mind), but at the time of What’s The 411?‘s release, few had ever heard a powerhouse Soul voice blended so deftly with the rugged elements of Rap music. Mary even joined Puba in spitting some raps.
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Mary J. Blige and Grand Puba brought “What’s The 411?” to the Yo! MTV Raps stage in 1993, where the two performed the track live. With a small crowd of viewers nodding their heads, this was a performance that helped illustrate the bridge between two genres which had yet to reach full maturity. Puba can be heard saying, before the track’s bona fide singing begins, that Mary is “trying to flip the script,” a characterization that suits her to this day.