Depending on who you speak with, this was either the start of karaoke R&B or one of the best soul/R&B albums of the 90’s, in a decade where there were a few (Maxwell’s Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar).
One journalist had called Mary J. Blige nothing but a karaoke singer who performed over “old records”, or in her case, songs reconstructed from songs from the past, a hip-hop style of production that the genre used in order to keep itself relevant, according to them. However, what made Blige appealing to some was not only the strength in her voice, but her “around the way” vibe that appealed to B-boys and B-girls at a time when it seemed hardcore hip-hop had taken over the musical headlines. It was nothing more than Mary J. Blige singing over trusted breakbeats, and maybe she placed a feminine touch that even female MC’s were not known to do at the time.
Up until the fall of 1994, Blige was still being talked about for her debut, What’s The 411?. In a genre where singers came and went, either as groups or solo, it was hard to say what Blige was capable of doing after her debut. Uptown/MCA Records did drop a mid-way remix album which not only spawned the hit “You Don’t Have To Worry”, but made people become aware of a guy named Biggie Smalls. People did put faith in the Uptown brand, and words like Puff Daddy and Puffy Combs had not become the dirty words it would become as he gained further success in the 90’s. It was still the early 90’s, and Puffy was still the young guy at Uptown ready to make moves, we just didn’t know at what level.
People were expecting new music from Blige, but no one outside of her immediate circle knew what kind of impact it would make. But once the video for “Be Happy” was released, fans realized something was about to happen.
How can I love somebody else
If I can’t love myself enough to know
When it’s time, time to let go?
All I really want is to be happy
And to find a love that’s mine, it would be so sweet
She was no longer the around-the-way-girl, there was immense growth in lyrics that thinly disguised pain and sorrow, complimented by a view so optimistic, you couldn’t help but sing along in support. It felt like a twist to Janet Jackson‘s occasional lullaby approach in some of her songs. The chorus to “Be Happy” felt like a lullaby, or like a calming song mom used to sing to you, as if she was trying to pass some of life’s lessons on to you.
Now let it breathe
There was already a nice mixture of joy and pain in Blige’s music, whether it was metaphorically talking about angels trying to find their way home, or simply loving for the sake of loving. She wasn’t doing anything too revolutionary, in fact if she was a country singer, these lyrics would have been perfect. Love lost, love found, love the one you with, love without a limit. Yet as people bought and started to listen to My Life, people started to shape a more in-depth of Blige as a singer and as a woman. Since she was someone known, people started to hear stories of her relationships, particularly with Jodeci vocalist K-Ci Bailey. Was it a perfect union, would they live happily ever after, maybe it had nothing to do with the music but that relationship and the failure of it became a part of My Life‘s mystique.
It was an album that started off with Mary talking about how “what I got will make you spend money”, it was sassy as hell and people loved it. She did it with an appropriate “Mary Jane” loop from the Mary Jane Girls, it was weeded up and smokey, you could taste the richness. We now knew she was happy and she wanted to dance with the brilliant “You Bring Me Joy”.
While the overall vibe was of her looking and finding joy, the chorus of the song showed that something else was being veiled over:
I don’t know what I would do
Do without you
In my life, boy
I don’t know if I could live
Live without you
You bring me joy
It seemed just as when happiness entered her life, she was already looking towards something wrong. She then moves on with “I’m The Only Woman”, and it’s as if she feels if her lover must stray, she’s going to tell him why that’s not the wise thing to do:
I know that I was wrong
For all that carrying on
But are you gonna hold this
Against me for life
You know all I wanted to do
Is be your wife
And make you happy
The song was a lure towards her intended target, so there was a little sass and swagger, and the effectiveness of the Curtis Mayfield sample made it worth perfectly. The album moves on towards someone listening to the radio, where Keith Murray is dropping a freestyle of sorts. When the song is switched over, we prepare for the anthemic title track. The “peace and love and flowers” talked about in Roy Ayers‘s “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, the song that was sampled and interpolated in “My Life”, is the core of the entire album. Blige wants that good love, but for her there’s more to life than live, and she explains this in the second verse:
Take your time, baby don’t you rush a thing
Don’t you know I know, we all are struggling
I know it is hard
But we will get far
And if you don’t believe in me
Just believe in He
Cause he’ll give you peace of mind
And you’ll see the sunshine
And you’ll get to free your mind
And things will turn out fine
There’s a spiritual side that she reveals, and yet a sign of vulnerability that she seems to struggle to hide, as shown by her glance to the camera on the album cover. It may not be the hidden-eye that Aaliyah had been known for, but it was very close, if not an accurate depiction of what Mary was ready, or not ready to reveal about her life. At that point in the album, things become much clearer. This is not going to be a complete album of joy, not without pain, not without loss, not without sorrow. Maybe the blue/grey tint of the album cover is meant to represent a vibe or a feeling, Mary’s Kind Of Blue if you will. “You Gotta Believe” feels like a confessional as Mary goes deep and comes out with something so revealing, you want to turn it off. Yet, you continue:
I told you once before
That I love you
And I need you
But let me tell you once again
You were my closest friend
I’ll never leave you
So hold me tight
All through the night
Caress me with your tender care
Anytime or anywhere
What takes this song home is the combined vocals of Big Bub of the group Today and a background singer who hadn’t made it on her own yet named Faith Evans. In late 1994, Today’s career was pretty much over but people still remembered Big Bub fondly, so to hear a hint of the old and a taste of what was to come: it was perfect and it was perhaps the “angels” on Mary’s shoulders trying to guide her along the way:
I will go with you anywhere
Won’t you trust in me baby
Stay with me
Till death do us part
You’ll always be right in my heart
Won’t you please stay with me
Baby please believe in me
Again, guided lessons, somber in tone not unlike a lullaby, very friendly and passionate.
Just when things couldn’t feel any more heartbroken than it already was, Mary goes down deeper in “Never Wanna Live Without You”
What is this feeling? I can’t sleep at night
Just thinking ’bout being without you
Work ’til I’m tired and I can’t eat a bite
Cause I know someday you’re going away
When Evans starts to sing “baby, won’t you stay with me a little while/baby, won’t you stay with me a little while/don’t leave me”, Mary starts to ad-lib about the desires in her needs, wanting to stand up strong but she can’t take it anymore, and the song casually fades. Suddenly, we know where she is, in her cover of Rose Royce‘s classic from the Car Wash film and soundtrack, “I’m Going Down”.
By performing this song and placing it at this point in the album, it’s obvious that, as the lyric goes, “my whole world’s upside down”. In the video, as she walks down on the stairs with a strut, there’s attitude there but the lyrics show a different side. Maybe by performing this song, it was a way of saying she wishes she could go back to a much simpler time, when one didn’t have to worry about life’s problems and relationships.
Side 2 begins with one of my favorite songs, “Be With You”, and by having a hint of Mountain‘s “Long Red” in the beat, it continues the hip-hop influence that was a big part of her music. It’s a b-boy vibe, but this was no b-boy singing. You want to dance to this song, and you did, and yet even before the song begins its first verse, Mary is shaping it with a brief message:
Does he love you
Does he care for you
Does he want you
Does he even care?
The melancholy of the synth line is very old school in feel, mixed in with the slight jazz chat in the background vocals, you listen and while you wish for her happiness, you’re realizing that maybe you’ve felt these exact same feelings she’s expressing. The beat is funky, what she’s saying inspires you, but then she gets to the last minute of the song when she says:
It seems like each and every time I come around
You don’t want me there
And it’s beginning to make me so scared
So scared that I might lose you
All I wanna do is be with you, baby baby baby baby boy
As if that’s not enough, she can’t take it anymore and it’s about “I just want to pick up the phone, yeah/and “oh it’s you, you, you”” and as the song begins to fade, she sings “mmm, mmm, mmm, yeah yeah yeah,YEAH!” in jubilation. Now that it’s all in the open, she calmly sings in the “I wanna be with you/i need to be with you, all day long”. If anything, we now know that at the beginning of the album she was proudly singing about what she’d like to do “all night long” and we’ve been listening to her feel sorrow and lonely in the morning, that 3am eternal, blue moon vibe.
“Mary’s Joint” is a bit of double-entendre,because while this obviously means that this is her song, and she’s going to sing it because it’s hers, it’s almost as if she can’t take this sorrow, so she’s going to light up a fat one and pass it to herself. “Don’t Go” purposely goes back to the background vocals she did in the song that’s sampled, Guy‘s “Goodbye Love”, and by playing with that sample, one can say that this is what Mary is trying to say to the intended target of the song, especially as she sings “don’t leave me, leave me, leave me/don’t go, don’t go”. With “I Love You”, she unleashes the three words that she hopes will be able to keep her man, and by using a sample that directly leads to the charm of Biz Markie, she’s hoping for a little bit of a feeling that will return to her. In the bridge, she then realizes that things will most likely never be what they were:
I wish you’d change your ways soon enough
So we could be together
You just don’t understand good love
But now all we have is memories
Of the way we used to be
The melody in the background is very melancholy, and I also love how she vocally revisits “Be With You” as she hums to herself, going back to the first song on Side 2.
In “No One Else”, she finally gets bold and stops blaming herself, or at least tries not to take full blame for the collapse of her relationship. Now we’re at the end of the album, and the intro sounds like a Disney moment, where the birds start coming in, and the world is a much better place to be. Again, the happiness felt in the intro quickly disappears as she sings:
How can I love somebody else
If I can’t love myself enough to know
When it’s time, time to let go?
By the end of My Life, love and happiness may not have been full achieved, but Mary knows what she’s looking for and decides to venture forward to continue on in life.
Maybe the album was felt so much because for years, her target audience had grown up with hip-hop but no one was feeling the heart and emotion of the kind of music she grew up listening to. Others knew. Maybe My Life was her way of growing up, and indirectly it was an album where her fans were growing up too, passing on life’s lessons just as her family and friends passed them on to her. Her audience were learning about their lives, how to cope and deal, and how love isn’t just what you see on TV or see in a music video. As she says in the title track, “if you’d look at my life, you’d seen what I’ve seen”, which made the listener want to know what her life was about. Listeners also saw/heard it as reflection, because they could look into themselves to wonder what in life lead them to where they were. If there was sadness and grey skies, Mary proudly told everyone that you’ll one day see the sunshine, and everything will turn out fine… if you allow it.
Maybe she was the soul that some felt hip-hop lacked, which is why she has always been embraced by hip-hop audiences. People call her the Queen of hip-hop soul, but does that indicate hip-hop has no soul, or was it soul music’s way of saying “we can be relevant in the shadow of hip-hop”? Whatever way it was marketed, it’s safe to say that My Life was an album that hit the marketplace at the right time. If hip-hop heads were asking themselves if their own minds were old because they were 17, or they were Wu’d out, Mary simply said “this is me”. It’s safe to say while the hip-hop cosmetics helped her finish her mission, she really didn’t need hip-hop to make this statement. Then again, maybe she needed hip-hop to get her from point A to point B in her life, and she celebrated the music and community, and the feeling behind/within it to make her say it. Through hip-hop, perhaps she realized something that Monday Michiru refered to in one of her songs six years later, in that everything she ever needed was right… there. In other words, it went back not only to her love of hip-hop, but soul/R&B, funk, and jazz.
For those of us who listened to My Life and embraced it, we did so because it became a part of our lives. We not only wanted to support Mary so she could feel good, but we heard our own pain and sorrow, and looked towards a positive outlook so we could be happy, with whomever it was. Living life is about letting go what we can’t hold on to, to not possess what really isn’t ours. As the old saying goes, if you love something or someone, set them free. Maybe they’ll come back, maybe not, but you can’t hold on to what was never yours, because there’s a lot more to find in the road ahead.
Mary J. Blige herself talked about being in a drug and alcohol filled haze in those early days, especially in the My Life era, go to any in-depth discussion about her music and people will say “I love Mary when she was coked up”. It’s not that anyone wants her to be a drug addict, but there was a sense of power in her music in her search for something better. Maybe she knew, through her lyrics, that once you hit an all time low, you can only look up. She did, metaphorically and perhaps spiritually. The lessons she offered was for listeners to give themselves a boost when it may feel like picking yourself up was not worth the effort. 15 years later, the inspiration to “Be Happy” and “find a love that’s mine, it would be so sweet” continues, and will no doubt be an inspiration for anyone who reaches a low and looks forward to bigger and better.
Thank you, Mary J. Blige.