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—by Antwane Folk

In 2002, Mary J. Blige’s career was soaring. She had both her triumphs over personal demons and an emotional and acclaimed performance of “No More Drama” at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards to thank. This performance stunned her critics, fans and peers, earning her a standing ovation from the likes of U2, Celine Dion, and Nelly Furtado on music’s biggest night. And just the year before, Blige had scored her first No.1 pop hit; “Family Affair,” as it was titled, was a shocking but successful pivot towards the trend of hip-hop’s ‘crunk’ phase.

With the mega success riding from those two hits and a reissue of the No More Drama album, a remix hailing the LP’s re-release would even see her reunite with longtime collaborator, famed P. Diddy. Beaming in the feel-good vibes of the day, the two hip-hop luminaries decided to join forces for Blige’s ‘No More Drama’ tour, performing there a few of their classic joints from 1992’s What’s the 411? and 1994’s My Life. The warm reception from the tour led the duo to believe that Blige’s next album was the perfect opportunity to try and recapture the magic.

Despite Blige and P. Diddy’s artistic differences in the past, their collaborations always yielded chart-topping singles, prestigious accolades, and consistent multi-platinum certifications. Ideally, the pair wanted to duplicate, or even surpass, their previous success with Mary’s Love & Life LP, her sixth full-length album.

For her new album, planned as an extension of her previous work but with thematic emphasis on self-reliance, Blige had several artistic goals she sought to execute. First, she was looking to continue chronicling her journey towards a drama-free life through her music. Additionally, she wanted to reconnect with her core fanbase—the hip-hop soul crowd who she enticed with her first two releases. Blige also wanted to sing love songs with more optimistic messages, given her newfound romance with her then-manager-turned-husband Kendu Isaacs.

The product of Blige’s laboring culminated with Love & Life—an hour-length, 18-track, sample-heavy LP—dropping on August 26, 2003. On the Billboard 200 albums chart, Love & Life bowed at No.1, marking Blige’s second album since 1997’s Share My World to reach the summit.

However, mixed reviews came pouring in upon release and despite the album’s chart-topping success. Much of the negative commentary specifically pinned the blame on the new optimistic love themes that Blige clamored in new scores.

Shortly after concluding the promotion obligations for Love & Life, industry insiders (and some fans) began considering the LP a washout in her discography. This growing consensus led Blige herself to adopt the positions of the naysayers in both tone and timbre. To add insult to the firestorm of injuries, Blige later implied that her reunion and studio sessions with Diddy caused the album stumble.

“None of us were in a good place,” she mentioned to Billboard in a 2005 interview. “Too many cooks spoiled the soup,” she said. “You had [Diddy] saying, ‘Do this, do that’ and I wanted something else.”

What could that something else have been though? Blige voiced to Power 99’s Mutha Knows in 2014, “I did [those] songs because I loved them. I love what I did.”

Still, the fact that she continues to decline incorporating at least two or three cuts from the album on any of her tour setlists makes this statement questionable.

However, despite Blige’s and critics’ overcritical attitude towards Love & Life, some small victories were able to spur.

Take “Hooked” for example, a taste test of the album’s sonic direction. The song reveals Blige riding the gritty beat of 50 Cent’s club banger “In the Club.” This hammering remix, along with other hip-hop heavy tracks like “Let Me Be the 1” featuring 50 himself, further solidified her royal title: The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. A title, it should be noted, that some industry figures were trying to bestow upon an upcomer in the game.

The album’s leading single, “Love @ 1st Sight,” featuring her Grammy-winning partner Method Man, retraced the edgy rap sounds of their ’90s heydays. The energetic video, which helped log her fifteenth Top 10 R&B hit, found Blige bobbing and weaving like LeBron James in the streets of NYC, donning both thigh-high boots and sneakers in respective frames.

Blige, along with Diddy and D-Nat, brought the bass for “Ooh!,” Love & Life‘s second single. The instrumental took cues from Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs’ “I Gotta Have It” and Hamilton Bohannon’s “Singing a Song for My Mother,” and the Street Aretha wailed on how it felt to be caught up in the rapture of love. The ill-advised music video for “Ooh!” was shot and shelved, but the song bagged Blige another Top 30 hit on the Hot 100. “Ooh” also earned Blige her fifth Best Female R&B Vocal Performance nomination from the Grammy Awards.

MJB reunited with lyricist Eve and super-producer Dr. Dre for the album’s third single, “Not Today.” Shouting out Whitney Houston’s hit “Heartbreak Hotel” on the ensemble’s intro, the body banger depicted Eve and Mary confronting their men about a web of lies.

However, when Blige announced that she was going through the “Thick Of It” and filed for divorce from her husband-manager of 12 years in 2016, there was no reason why “Not Today” wasn’t included as an addition to her concert setlists. Even an appearance from Eve would have been held dear by fans. Their unity and empowerment on stage in 2004 was special to watch, especially their swagged out Victoria Secret Fashion Show and choreographed VIBE Awards performances.

Blige, then only 11 years deep into her career, had already recorded songs with big name artists like JAY-Z, Aretha Franklin and Elton John. But in 2003, for Love & Life, she added acclaimed English musician Sting to her growing list of collaborators with their duet “Whenever I Say Your Name.” This sophisticated serenade was originally recorded for the rockstar’s Sacred Love album, but was also featured on Love & Life‘s international release.

The collaboration earned Blige a prestigious superlative with the Grammys. Her duet with Sting won Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals at the 46th Grammys, becoming her whopping third genre-crossing win. She won her first two in 1996 (rap) and 2002 (R&B). She’d go on to beat her own record in 2008 after she walked away with a gospel Grammy. (She is the only artist to have Grammy wins in four distinctive fields.)

A Love & Life album reviewer quoted, “It’s the songs of sadness and anger that work best,” and these sentiments appeared to have had some bearing on the singer. In the music video for “It’s a Wrap,” actor Blair Underwood portrayed Mary’s contested low-down love interest, detailing a two-timing account revealed by the songwriting. Blige—sporting a fur, stilettos, and her silver tooth—had a Kelis ‘caught out there’ moment, pulling up on Underwood and his mistress, with her clique, in traffic and dragging them both out of a luxury car.

Any day-one MJB fan would agree that the singer’s pained singing voice has undergone some changes. Blige has even admitted it herself, saying to MTV in 2003, “I lost some of my vocal abilities from smoking and drinking and doing drugs.” These changes began creeping up in the Love & Life era that contained its fair share of tear-jerking and flawed vocal performances.

With every uncomfortable grunt and each off-key wail, her vocal decline around this time inspired the singer to shoot for perfection with future projects. Her acclaimed performance of “Be Without U” in 2006 at the JCPenney Jam concert became a testament to the hard work she poured into improving her vocals. Her mini-concert series Live at Abbey Road is surely another.

Beyond the singles, Love & Life contained a number of satisfying tunes. With love on the brain, Blige mustered up sweet numbers like “Willing & Waiting” and “Feel Like Makin Love.”

Although Blige would tell VIBE in Fall 2003, “[Love & Life] is a throwback of What’s the 411? in sound,” with foresight, this album could actually be regarded as a sequel to Mary’s My Life. With Love & Life, Blige became better equipped for what life would throw at her next, as revealed through tracks like the Barry White-borrowed “Friends” and rock-soul’s “Press On.”

And the album’s closer, “Ultimate Relationship (A.M.),” how could we forget that track? Blige sung a careful hymnal, thanking God for his selfless acts of kindness in the early hours of the morning. The spiritual tune birthed a staple in the devotional genres and would go on to receive covers by singers such as Lalah Hathaway.

15 years later, Love & Life deserves more homage from critics, fans and, more importantly, from Mary J herself. The LP played a tremendous role in shaping Blige’s thematic and lyrical content for years to come. Her motivational songs like “Just Fine” are odes to this era. “If I didn’t have any love for myself, or my foundation, which is God, I would be finished,” she said to VIBE in 2003.

Most importantly, Love & Life laid the groundwork for her career-defining comeback project, 2005’s The Breakthrough. Her later successes may have never been written without this transitory album. This includes her most endearing moments: “Be Without You”; being crowned by Billboard as the most successful female R&B/hip-hop artist of the last 25 years; and notching history-making Oscar nominations.

With our fingers crossed, maybe one day Blige will rest some of her popular oldies on tour and give some ‘love and life’ to this collection of songs. Until then, we appreciate everyone involved in making Love & Life what it was.

—by Antwane Folk