Twenty or so years ago, the soundtrack to a little-remembered movie called “Strictly Business” was released. In the movie, “In Living Color”‘s Tommy Davidson plays a mailroom clerk trying to hook his Wall Street-type friend (played by “The Cosby Show”‘s Joseph C. Phillips) up with a party girl portrayed by future Academy Award winner Halle Berry. The film wasn’t memorable, but the soundtrack, released on then “it” label Uptown, served as a pretty decent sampler of what was hot in urban music around that time. Artists featured included LL Cool J (who performed the title track), Heavy D. & The Boyz, Stephanie Mills, and several baby acts, including rap outfit Leaders of the New School (featuring a young Busta Rhymes) and vocal quartet Jodeci (who’d just released their debut album, Forever My Lady.) The album’s biggest hit turned out to be “You Remind Me”, a midtempo offering by a young lady from Yonkers by the name of Mary J. Blige. Scraping the pop top 40 and sailing to the #1 spot on the R&B Singles chart, it was the beginning of a career that’s still thriving two decades later.
As she prepares to release her tenth studio album, My Life 2: The Journey Continues, MJB still stands as a force to be reckoned with in the music world. She was instrumental in R&B’s move away from the quiet storm into new jack swing into “hip-hop soul.” She’s also become so much more than that genre label might indicate. She’s collaborated with Method Man and Ghostface (oh, let’s face it, she’s collaborated with just about every rapper in existence), but she’s also performed with Aretha and Chaka, not to mention Bono and Sting. She’s laid her issues bare on wax again and again, attracting a faithful legion of fans, and she’s managed to last two decades in this industry while remaining free of any major scandal. She’s also maintained a certain relatability. Even though she’s a diva, she remains completely approachable and “regular.” She rubs shoulders with royalty, but you can see yourself playing spades with her in someone’s living room. Or at least I can.
She’s also a poster child for maturation through music. Who’d have thought the B-girl poster child of the early Nineties would be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Oprah and President Obama years later?
Mary’s been so prolific that we’ve decided to break her discography up into two parts. Sit down, relax, and check out our album-by-album breakdown of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s career.
What’s The 411? (1992): Up until What’s The 411? came out, what was then called “new jack swing” was almost exclusively a man’s game. TLC had come out earlier in the year, but Mary was the first woman to add considerable vocal skills to hip-hop production. The result was one of the best R&B debuts of the Nineties. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but MJB ruled the airwaves for a solid year with cuts from 411, and not just the singles either. The album’s title track found her going toe to toe with none other than Grand Puba and flexing a bit more lyrical dexterity than the average “singer who also raps.” Of course, there was also the jeep-banger “Real Love” (Mary’s breakout pop hit) as well as the youthful-but-seductive “Reminisce”. “I Don’t Want To Do Anything” was an intense duet with then-boyfriend K-Ci Hailey, while “Love No Limit” had a jazzy Anita Baker flavor to it. Mary even paid tribute to her heroine Chaka Khan with a faithful rendition of “Sweet Thing”. A solid first effort. Grade: A-
What’s The 411? Remix Album (1993)-Remix albums are usually throwaways, cash grabs released by a label to bide time between an artist’s albums. In Mary J.’s case, remixes had been so integral to her early success (and would continue to be for much of the first half of her career), it would have been a gross oversight had this album not been issued. In many cases, the remixes here equal or surpass the original versions. A lighthearted guest rap by Heavy D. on “My Love” brightens the mediocre album version considerably, while the Notorious B.I.G. adds an X-rated spin to “What’s The 411?” The album’s best track is a version of “Love No Limit” that incorporates the musical bed from Keni Burke’s immortal “Risin’ To The Top” , flips the original song’s melody on it’s side, and adds strong background vocals from K-Ci. Easily one of the five most essential remix albums ever made. Grade: B+
My Life (1994)-This was the album that crystallized Mary as we know her. Brooding, pained yet resilient. This album emanates relationship toxicity, even on the supposedly happy songs. The Barry White-sampling “You Bring Me Joy” rings with co-dependency, for example, as does one of the album’s standout tracks, “Never Wanna Live Without You.” Mary had a rep for not always being pitch perfect, but in My Life‘s case, the lack of technical finesse made for an almost painfully personal listening experience. For my money, being able to feel her emotionally makes up for any missed notes. There are so many good songs on here it almost makes sense to just list the ones that aren’t so good-cut “You Gotta Believe” and “Don’t Go” (a good song with a sample that throws it completely out of whack) are the only two skippable songs on the album. Also odd for what’s considered one of modern R&B’s seminal albums-other than a couple of between-song skits, there is not one guest emcee on the entire set. Grade: A
Share My World (1997)-At this point, the sound that Mary J. had created with Puff Daddy and his Bad Boy production staff was the sound of pop music at large, so her separation from Puffy and company didn’t affect the sound of her next album too much. Share My World is a fairly consistent effort, strange considering almost every track is helmed by a different producer. However, Mary’s vocals hold the album together. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis contribute the ebullient midtempo track “Everything” as well as the banging first single, “Love is All We Need” (which is a solid song even though it’s an obvious rewrite of My Life‘s “Be Happy”). “Seven Days” is a subtly rendered story song about the unfolding of a relationship between two friends, and “It’s On” is a smoldering duet between Blige and R. Kelly. Like just about every album made by anyone during the Nineties, it’s a track or two too long, and there is a slight sense of re-hash, but overall, Share My World is a solid addition to Mary’s catalog. Grade: B
The Tour (1998)-First off, I’m not a huge fan of live albums. So I’m probably not the best person in the world to review this album. Second, Mary J. wasn’t the live performer at this point in her career that she is now. Thirdly, I feel like being at this show and enjoying the visual part of it (as well as feeding off of the audience reaction to the concert) was probably a MUCH better experience than listening to the concert on a CD while playing cards or whatever, which brings me back to my first point. Anyhow, Mary runs through her hits with enthusiasm and attitude (if not vocal acuity) and adds in covers of Aretha’s “Day Dreaming” and Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue”. It’s a completely unnecessary album that I’d have enjoyed much more if there was a visual component to it. Grade: C
Mary (1999)-Mary was the Queen of hip-hop soul’s attempt to “go respectable”, and it’s not entirely successful. “Deep Inside” rests on an awkward sample of Elton John’s “Bennie & The Jets”, featuring Sir Elton himself playing piano. Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famers Eric Clapton and a less-than-subtle Aretha Franklin also make appearances on this decent but unspectacular album. Strangely, for a singer as fiery as MJB, many of the songs on Mary are downright sleepy. The excellent DMX & Nas collaboration “Sincerity” (which got tons of radio play in New York City but didn’t fit thematically with the rest of the album) should’ve gotten left on the final pressing, in addition to her excellent cover of Stevie Wonder’s “As” with George Michael (another song that got strong airplay but was left off the album in the aftermath of George’s tearoom scandal.) A handful of songs rise above the mediocrity-Lauryn Hill’s wistful “All That I Can Say”, the sensual “Sexy” (which replicates the melody of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It”), and two excellent covers: a delightful reading of The Gap Band’s “I’m In Love”, and a triumphant version of First Choice’s disco classic “Let No Man Put Asunder.” Grade: B-
Stay tuned for part two of our Mary J. feature, which will conclude with a Spotify playlist featuring 20 essential MJB tracks.