Mary J. Blige’s ‘My Life’ Turns 25
In soul music, selling a lyric with conviction trumps erudition. When Mary J. Blige belts into the mic, you believe every word she spits, whether she wrote the song or not. Her three-octave mezzo-soprano positively erupts with emotional immediacy. Even when detractors criticized her singing, especially during her early years, for being flat, strained and overloaded with inchoate melismas, she was lauded as a spectacular storyteller.
To say it another way, and at the risk of sounding sentimental, when Mary J. Blige sings you hear teardrops inside her notes. Teardrops certainly trickle through her sensational yet stormy album My Life, released 25 years ago, on Nov. 29, 1994.
My Life’s title track is a perfect example of Blige’s narrative prowess. Cowritten by the singer, Arlene DelValle and the producers Sean Combs and Chucky Thompson, it’s a simmering mediation from a protagonist who’s witnessed and survived unbearable pain. Blige doesn’t reveal the ugly details, but you feel the heaviness of her backstory through her bristling delivery. Still, the song contains glimmers of hope. “When you’re feeling down, you should never fake it,” Blige sings. “Say what’s on your mind and you’ll find in time/That all the negative energy, it would all decease/And you’ll be at peace with yourself.” In the end, the song offers a kind of memoir with a motif of resilience amid mounting heartache.
This masterwork arrived on the heels of Blige’s galvanizing 1992 debut, What’s the 411?, and its 1993 companion remix version. 411 became a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and, owing to how impeccably her voice blended with the au courant beats of her producers, Blige acquired the well-deserved title of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
As with What’s the 411?, Combs demonstrated on My Life his knack for sampling classic, almost too obvious vintage R&B staples from the 1970s. Cookout joints like Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” Curtis Mayfield’s “You’re So Good to Me,” Barry White’s “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me” and the Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long” bolster some the album’s best-known cuts, granting them added emotional gravity and placing Blige’s voice where it belongs, in a context of timeless, beloved black American soul and pop.
Blige blazed onto the scene when hip-hop was eclipsing R&B as the dominant soundtrack for young, mainstream black America. Female R&B singers of the previous generation often fell into two categories: On one side were such superstars as Janet Jackson, Pebbles and Jody Watley, who traded in kinetic dance-oriented material; on the other were divas like Anita Baker, Regina Belle, Sade and Miki Howard, who specialized in delicate melds of ersatz jazz and mellow R&B.
Within the aesthetic of hip-hop soul, Blige had a few peers, among them Michel’le and Alyson Williams; like Mary J., they thrived at the crossroads where the testimonial soul of yesteryear intersected with the rugged rhythms of early ’90s rap and new jack swing. But neither of them had the captivating allure and staying power of Blige.
Sudden fame didn’t bring the Queen everlasting happiness. She reportedly was depressed during the making of My Life. There were stories of drug and alcohol abuse as well as the physical, emotional and mental torment inflicted by her then-boyfriend Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey, a lead singer of Jodeci. Blige’s torrential relationship with K-Ci inspired much of My Life, as the singer ricocheted between themes of romantic yearning and spiritual salvation—the two towering pillars of American soul music.
Blige may have frontloaded My Life with upbeat club bangers, like the sultry “Mary Jane (All Night Long)” and the jaunty “You Bring Me Joy,” but even on those tracks she hints at the trouble in the air, yearning to get past all the fussing and fighting. In many of the album’s love songs, Blige positions herself as a “ride or die” woman, willing to cling to her man no matter how grave the circumstances.
The weather grows stormier as the album segues into the moody “I’m the Only Woman,” which finds Blige pledging precarious levels of commitment in spite of clear warning signs. From there, the melancholy grows increasingly onerous, and comes to a head on her torchy cover of Rose Royce’s heart-wrenching mid-’70s ballad, “I’m Going Down.”
But every queen worth her crown has demonstrated survival instincts. Blige’s emotional state rebounds on the album’s closer, “Be Happy.” The song begins with siren-like flute slicing through a rumbling soundscape, like a rainbow piercing through dark clouds. After a heavenly harp flutters across an infectious sample of Mayfield’s “You’re So Good to Me,” Blige serenades with the opening self-reflective lines, “How can I love somebody else/If I can’t love myself enough to know/When it’s time to let go.” The song’s chorus, “All I really want is to be happy/And to find a love that’s mine/It would be so sweet,” comes off like a life-affirming mantra after a hard-won battle.
In the years that followed its release, My Life was named one of the greatest albums of all time in outlets like Rolling Stone, Blender and TIME. Blige’s troubled relationship with K-Ci informed more of her critically acclaimed work, including My Life’s 1997 follow-up, Share My World, and 1999’s Mary. Around the turn of the century, she released the astonishingly upbeat No More Drama, which suggested that she’d moved beyond toxic romances. Yet even on No More Drama, you can hear the teardrops of a survivor.
For more on My Life, watch CRWN: A Conversation With Elliott Wilson & Mary J. Blige. Only on TIDAL.
John Murph has held editorial positions at AARP The Magazine and BET, and written for the Washington Post, NPR Music, the Atlantic, the Root, DownBeat and other outlets. He lives and DJs in Washington, D.C.
Image by Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images.
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