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Mary J. Blige’s My Life Turns 20

Tomorrow will mark 20 years since Mary J. Blige released her sophomore album, My Life. While Blige’s 92′ debut, What’s The 411?, established her as R&B’s new It Girl with classic hits like “Real Love” and “Reminisce,” it was with My Life that the singer transcended the new Jill swing label and emerged as one of the premiere soul singers of her generation. That’s because My Life is one of the most influential R&B albums ever recorded.

It might be hard for some of us–particularly those born in the eighties and nineties–to imagine, what with every R&B track currently on the charts and the radio laced with hard beats, samples and a guest verse from the hot rapper of the moment, but at one time, R&B and hip hop didn’t mix. In fact, many established R&B acts, label heads and radio stations viewed this rough, rambunctious music with suspicion at best, with derision and outright disrespect at worst. Watch old clips of Soul Train and see how baffled Don Cornelius looks at the sight of Kurtis Blow and Public Enemy if you don’t believe.

However, by the early nineties, with the success of acts like Bobby Brown, Bel Biv Devoe and Guy, even mainstream artists like Michael and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were incorporating elements of hip hop and new jack swing into their music.

Enter Mary J. Blige.  Though other female artists emerging at the same time had a hip hop sensibility, like NehNeh Cherry, TLC and SWV, Mary infused her music with a gritty vulnerability derived from a childhood spent in the rough and tumble “Slow Bomb” housing projects in Yonkers. What’s The 411? hinted at Blige’s inner turmoil with songs like “Changes I’ve Been Goin’ Through,” but the album’s heavy rap influence, along with Blige’s wardrobe of jerseys, ball caps and combat boots, couched much of the sentiment in a ’round the way B-Girl persona.

With My Life however, the more in-your-face rap elements took a backseat, allowing for a seamless combination of mid-90′s East Coast hip hop married with samples from soul greats like Curtis Mayfield, Teddy Pendergrass, Barry White and Roy Ayers. It also made room for Blige’s own troubled soul to take center stage, and it does so with gut-wrenching sincerity. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Mary knows her personal history–the drugs, the drinking, abusive relationships, the childhood molestation–and all of this influenced the album’s dark mood.

What’s fascinating about My Life is the way the album’s 17 tracks cover the same subject matter–love–without becoming monotonous. Maybe it’s because each song is so blunt in the way it describes the uncomfortable, messy recriminations, anxieties and contradictions of a powerful, dysfunctional relationship. Things appear to start off light with opening tracks “Mary Jane (All Night Long)” and “You Bring Me Joy,” but a quick glance at the lyrics, with pleas not to “fuss and fight,” plaintive demands her partner (which if you didn’t know, was K-Ci of Jodeci at the time) admit his love for her and ease up on the jealousy, reveal all is not what it seems.

Things go downhill from there. There’s “I’m The Only Woman,” where Mary asks her man “to make me feel like I’m somebody,” and lamenting the lack of trust in the relationship. Then during the much-lauded, Roy Ayers-sampling title track, Mary lays out what could be My Life‘s thesis statement: “Oh you would see I’m so blue/Down and out/Cryin’ every day/Don’t know what to do or say.” The theme of trust returns on “You Gotta Believe,” where the singer pleads for honesty and understanding, with K-Ci chiming in “Mary, Mary/Hear you loud and clear.” But the six-minute quiet storm that is “I Never Wanna Live Without You,” says otherwise. “I can’t eat a bite/’Cause I know someday you’re goin’ away,” Mary sings, sounding pained, while the closing request to “stay a little while/don’t leave” carries more than a hint of desperation and loneliness.

Once the opening horns of Rose Royce’s classic “I’m Goin’ Down,” kick in, Mary seems to realize what we’ve long since picked up on. But just because you can recognize things ain’t all good, doesn’t mean you know how to fix them. Take the bluesy boom bap of “Be With You” for instance, which comes off like an angry late-night phone call involving much finger-pointing into the receiver. Mary spends the entire track describing a man who doesn’t want her around, one with whom she constantly fights with and wishes would acknowledge her, only to end the track wailing “I need to be with you/All day long.”  Then “Mary’s Joint,” hands down my favorite track on the album, lays out the sad state of affairs. She’s in love, she can’t let go, and she’ll wait until he can match her depth of feeling and commitment. But that doesn’t appear to be happening. As the song ends, she laments over and over “why can’t we work it out my baby/Can’t we try/You said our love would always stand the test of time.”

“Don’t Go,” underlines even more just how one-sided this relationship is; in fact, it’s striking how many times Mary refers to being left alone, to waiting for the other party to show up physically and emotionally. She is essentially in love by herself, and finally appears to wise up to this reality in “I Love You,” a thanks-for-the-memories tune in which she resolves to find someone new. But one track later, she singing K-Ci’s praises and promising not to stray in “No One Else,” trying to convince us–and more than likely herself– that she’s satisfied, despite the heartache and tears this love brings.

“Be Happy,” the closing track and the album’s first single, was presented as the unveiling a new Mary J Blige, all silver bubble jackets and Florence Henderson blond bobs. The kids may not know (at least those who’ve never Youtubed her first Behind The Music), but at the time Mary had a reputation for being difficult. Difficult in this case meaning showing up late to photo shoots and performances, never taking her sunglasses off when she got there, and taking a “shoot first” attitude toward journalists. Taken in the context of the album however, the song plays less like an image makeover than a series of sad realizations. That not being able to let go of a destructive love illuminates a lack of self love; that self-deception imbues a lover with traits you want them to have, not ones they actually possess. Mary still doesn’t know what to do or say. But, as the song says, all she really wants is to be happy.

It’s this naked vulnerability, this fearless, unflinching honesty that makes My Life such a classic. Thankfully for her, and us, Mary’s story didn’t end there. Survivor that she is, she confronted her demons, leaving the addictions and abusive relationships behind, fighting her way back to a life that include happiness, and yes, real love.

There are other albums where Mary’s voice is in better shape, the lyrics are stronger, the music more diverse and technically sophisticated. But My Life remains her emotional tour de force, a melancholy masterpiece that will continue to resonate as long as there are people falling in and out of love, struggling to get it from others and most importantly, find it within themselves.

Mary J said it was her life. But really, it could be any one of ours.

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