Mary J. Blige is the undisputed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. She’s provided us with countless hits. The kind that make your head bop and the ones that may make you slide down the wall crying in the midst of a shower. She’s smooth enough to make a Chaka Khan song her own, yet strong enough to hold her own when she creates classic hip-hop collaborations with rappers like Method Man, Notorious B.I.G., and JAY-Z.
Take one look at the evolution of contemporary R&B over the last 26 years, and you will see, the 1992 release of Mary J. Blige’s debut album What’s the 411? marked a pivotal point in music and made Mary one of the artists responsible for revolutionizing the genre. She undeniably played a role in creating a space in the industry for women like Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Faith Evans, and SZA. Her music even became a major influence on Mariah Carey’s sound. When Uptown Records dropped Mary’s first #1 singles, “You Remind Me” and “Real Love,” she kicked open the door on a new sound that would forever influence the way R&B was approached, especially for female artists.
She wears the crown, not just due to her mastering the sound of a genre defined by singing R&B melodies over hip-hop beats, but because her music and songwriting almost serve as an autobiography for her life. Not only does she make us feel, but she makes us want to dance. The word ‘soulful’ could easily be used to describe the way she sings, but it would be remiss not to acknowledge the special ache often heard in her voice. That’s what gives her the ability to pull you in and connect with your emotions. She tells stories of being deeply in love, captures the pain it often causes, and also lets women know when it’s time to tap into their own strength to overcome life’s drama. With her signature sound and New York City fly girl look, she helped change the landscape of 90s R&B, creating a musical impact we still feel today.
In 1989, her demo came across the desk of Andre Harrell at Uptown Records. Harrell put under the creative vision and production skills of a young Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs. At the time, Combs was an Uptown intern-turned-talent director going by the name Puff Daddy and looking for the right protégé to help prove himself as a newcomer in the industry. Mary was an eager singer and songwriter ready to jump on the opportunity to use her talent as an escape from the sometimes harsh reality of her upbringing in Yonkers. With Combs as executive producer of her first two albums, the duo married two distinctly different sounds together by blending the slow passion of R&B with up-tempo beats, creating what we now know as Hip-Hop Soul.
Mary’s look is as essential as her vocals. During the mid-80s and early 90s male R&B singers had already found their niche for giving R&B more street-cred through the creation of New Jack Swing, a sound credited to then-Uptown labelmate Teddy Riley. However, while Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, and En Vogue were the leading ladies of the genre, they were still sticking to the industry mold of gowns and glam. Mary was different, prompting Combs to tap stylist Misa Hylton to assist with shaking up the world’s idea of what a female R&B artist was supposed to look like.
In her very first music video, for “You Remind Me,” she wore a mid-drift-bearing silver jumpsuit from Patricia Fields with knee pads in one scene, and an oversized hockey jersey with a cheerleading skirt, backwards baseball cap, and combat boots in the next scene. Mary proved women could have sex appeal while singing in a baggy men’s baseball jersey, hitting hip-hop choreography, and holding their own next to the men. She had successfully broken all of the rules, sonically and visually.
Starting with an appropriately titled second album “My Life,” Mary began taking over the majority of her songwriting efforts, allowing her to become more authentic to her fans. With each new song, listeners were getting to know her through the music. In a time when it was about keeping it cute and soft, Mary showed the other side of what it’s like to be woman by expressing the hurt sometimes associated with love. Mary made the vulnerability sound strong, not weak.
Throughout her career, she’s made fans fall in love with her by stripping away the superstar exterior and letting us see what has happened in her life behind closed doors. Being open about the troubles of her past including molestation, unhealthy romantic relationships, an absentee father, and a battle with substance abuse, her truth became a testimony. Her life represented a reflection of many young women, especially in the African-American community, who were seeking love and validation often times in the wrong places. Beyond the music, Mary is evidence that in spite of the ways life may try to knock you down, you can still come out on top. Now that she’s on the other side of her dark past, she teaches women that knowing the value of loving themselves first is the best ingredient for a true love song.
Combs used his success with Mary and their Hip-Hop Soul sound as the blueprint for curating chart-topping songs for other artists, including his next R&B songstress and the First Lady of Bad Boy Records, Faith Evans. He even lent his hands as musical producer to Mariah Carey, starting with his shocking feature of Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the 1995 remix to “Fantasy.” His work on singles like “Honey” featuring Mase and The Lox and “Breakdown” with Bone-Thugs-and-Harmony led to Mariah’s cross-over appeal and catapulted Mariah into the mega-star she is today (while also leading to the popular musical recipe of featuring rappers on pop records to gain the urban fanbase). During his Bad Boy Reunion Tour, Combs proudly told the thousands of fans in attendance, “There would be no Bad Boy without Mary J. Blige.”
Regardless of who is inspired by her, no one can quite do it like Mary. Longevity and consistency is what music royalty are made of. With the 2017 release of Strength of a Woman, her thirteenth studio album, Mary remained transparent about her recent divorce. With her ability to turn challenges into triumph, her singles “U + ME” and “Thick of It” soared to No.1 on Billboard’s Adult R&B charts. Earning numerous achievements and honors to her name, the queen holds court outside of the music industry as well. This year, she not only received her first Oscar nomination, but was a double nominee for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film Mudbound and Best Original Song for “Mighty River,”which she wrote and sang as the lead single for the film’s soundtrack. Mary became the first person to receive nominations form the academy for both an acting performance and original song in the same year.
How often does an artist come along dynamic enough to lead the creation of a new genre and revolutionize how women sing about love? In 2018, hearing R&B artists utilize hip-hop to create some of our favorite music is something we’ve come love and take for granted. We must put all due respect on Mary J. Blige’s name. Almost 30 years later, and she still has us yelling “Go Mary! Go Mary!” as our Queen does her infamous two-step across the stage