What's the 411? (Uptown/MCA, 1992)
My Life (Uptown/MCA, 1994)
Share My World (MCA, 1997)
Mary (MCA, 1999)
No More Drama (MCA, 2001)
Love and Life (Geffen, 2003)
The Breakthrough (Geffen, 2005)
Reflections (A Retrospective)
Growing Pains (Geffen, 2007)
Stronger With Each Tear (Geffen, 2009)
Mary J. Blige's authoritative, sometimes bellicose voice and no-bull delivery made her one of the important new voices of the Nineties. A bridge between the R&B world and the hip-hop nation, she pioneered the movement that would later become neo-soul, generating gripping songs that were also massive radio hits. Blige, also known as "the queen of hip-hop soul," has the distinction of being the first to fully seize the narrative possibilities of rap: Her tough-girl persona and streetwise lyrics give even the sweet songs of her 1992 debut What's the 411? a gritty undertone and a realism missing from much of the devotional love songs ruling the charts at that time.
Growing up in a housing project in Yonkers, Blige listened to everything from "Planet Rock" to Anita Baker; she was initially discovered by Uptown's Andre Harrell, then came under the wing of Sean "Puffy" Combs, who co-produced What's the 411?, situating her voice in capricious, playful settings just edgy enough to rate time on hip-hop mix shows.
Blige's vocal skills shine more completely on the followup, 1994's My Life, which finds Combs guiding her into more conventional R&B-ballad territory. Blige sings of hard times, men who hurt her, and struggles she's known, sometimes veering precariously close to overly emotional hand-wringing. The most compelling material, however, is the more sensual songs, among them the hit "Mary Jane (All Night Long)" and the brisk "You Bring Me Joy."
The success of her first two projects enabled Blige to call the shots on her next one, and she moved even further toward the R&B mainstream by hiring Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Babyface, and others to produce. Share My World, which entered at #1 on the Billboard charts, displays Blige's hit-song savvy but fewer memorable performances. 1999's Mary more fully realizes Blige's vision for Share My World. Its songs include a beautiful duet with Lauryn Hill, "All That I Can Say," and two smart appropriations: "Deep Inside" interpolates Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets," while "Time" borrows portions of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" and Al Green's "I'm Glad You're Mine."
By the time Blige returned with No More Drama in 2001, her neo-soul approach had helped artists such as Macy Gray become stars. Sensing the potential for burnout, Blige makes the music more assertive (Dr. Dre produces the percolating dance-floor anthem "Family Affair") and the lyrics more uplifting and compassionate. Several songs, including the title track, pursue the theme of reconciliation, and there's even an ode to the emotional trials of "PMS." As in the past, Blige gathers an enormous amount of talent to help her—from rappers Eve, Missy Elliott, and Ja Rule to Combs, now P. Diddy, who does a remix of the title track—and, on this set, the intense singer makes sure that everyone shines.
Blige's reunion with P. Diddy, Love and Life, doesn't quite hark back to the pair's enduring What's the 411?, but is a feast of contrasts: Some of the tracks catch Blige celebrating the joy of romance, and others, particularly tracks with Method Man and 50 Cent providing rap cameos, offer craftily produced chronicles of sex and its aftermath. The Breakthrough was much stronger: It went multi-platinum, thanks to a huge cast of songwriters and producers (will.i.am, Cool and Dre), its solidly hip-hop-flavor, and a succession of beautiful, from-the-gut ballads—including a cover of U2's "One."
In 2006, Blige released a very good hits compilation, and in 2007 came Growing Pains, which was similar is style to Breakthrough and nearly as strong, with empowerent anthems like "Work That." With a list of collaborators including Ryan Leslie, Polow Tha Don and Ne-Yo, Stronger With Each Tear had upbeat songs and crisp, digital production that echoed much radio-friendly R&B in 2009. But although she tries some new tricks—"I Feel Good" has robot vocal effects—Blige often sounds like Blige, only a little happier and more self-affirmed than usual.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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