30 years ago today, a queen was crowned.
After Mary J. Blige released her debut album What’s the 411? – an innovative hybrid of rap and R&B – she was deemed the “Queen of Hip Hop Soul.” Although the Yonkers, N.Y. native has since evolved into a global icon and has experimented with an array of genres across the board, her debut changed R&B forever and its influence is still evident today.
Before Mary prompted the marriage of hip hop and R&B, the two genres first had to meet. Funk and soul jams were often sampled and repurposed for rap tunes since its early beginnings, but R&B rarely delved into hip hop’s territory. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Teddy Riley spearheaded the New Jack Swing movement, which laced R&B tracks with hip hop-influenced drum sequences, sampled beats and melodies. As the world became increasingly familiar with the new sound, tracks like Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” started to heat up on Billboard. Even Michael Jackson, the biggest artist in the world at the time, recruited Riley to incorporate the New Jack sound into his eighth studio album, Dangerous.
At the height of the movement, Mary was signed to the recently launched Uptown Records in 1989. Uptown, which was founded by Bronx music exec Andre Harrell, was already the home of Riley’s group Guy. The label was progressively building a roster of impressive acts like Heavy D, Al B. Sure!, and Jodeci, but they were missing a first lady. Thus, Mary became Uptown’s first female signee, and Harrell appointed intern-turned-A&R Puffy Combs (now known as Diddy) to executive produce her debut. From there, Diddy and other producers — including Mark Morales, Dave Hall, Mark “Cory” Rooney and Tony Dofat, among many others — got to work on creating Mary’s sound.
While New Jack already incorporated hip hop-inspired drum breaks and samples, the style was generally polished and upbeat. An edgier take on the fusion already started bubbling with the release of Jodeci’s 1991 “Come and Talk to Me” remix, which Diddy produced. The forces behind 411 took the style even further and made New Jack more simplified, gritty and relaxed. For example, the album’s first single, “You Remind Me,” was primarily built off a coarse drum sample from Biz Markie’s 1988 track “Biz Dance Part 1.” That base was then juxtaposed by Hall’s bright instrumentation and then chef’s kissed by Mary’s smooth vocals.
Numerous other tracks on the album — like the Mary signature “Real Love” and the album cut “Changes I’ve Been Going Through” — followed this same formula. And although “Sweet Thing” was a cover of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s popular 1975 song, Morales and Rooney cunningly kept the theme going by incorporating a drum sample of Barry White’s 1973 hit “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby.” Standout songs like “Love No Limit,” “Slow Down” and the K-Ci-assisted “I Don’t Want to Do Anything” strayed away from the format but ensured Mary lived up to the latter half of her Queen of Hip Hop Soul moniker.
In addition to incorporating hip hop elements directly into the production, rappers such as Heavy D, Erick Sermon and Busta Rhymes popped up on the album’s “Leave a Message” opener and “Intro Talk” skits, further proving that in Mary’s world, rap & R&B go together like white on rice. Although Mary wasn’t the first artist to fuse hip hop and R&B, she became the queen because she perfected it in a way that the industry would later follow. After her debut, the barrier between the two genres continued to break down, as R&B artists – both male and female – tapped rappers for features and also relied on samples to back their music.
Throughout the remainder of the 90s, we saw mega artists like Mariah Carey, Usher, Aaliyah, Brandy and many others fully embrace hip hop. Today, the marriage of the two genres is still thriving. Modern-day vocalists like SZA, Summer Walker and Ari Lennox regularly collaborate with rappers and their production often retools tunes from the past. In fact, Walker’s popular 2021 album Still Over It, replete with its lengthy list of rap collabs and heavy use of samples, sounds like it could be a modern-day descendant in 411’s lineage.
But Mary’s music wasn’t the only ingredient that proved to be influential following the release of her debut. Her style and aesthetic during this era also had a major impact. Just one year prior to the album’s release, Diddy developed Jodeci’s look with Misa Hylton and convinced Harrell to let the North Carolina quartet adopt a bad boy image. When Mary’s time rolled around, both Diddy and Hylton followed suit and ensured the singer’s style matched her music. Glitzy gowns, diamonds and heels traditionally worn by R&B divas of the past were eschewed for baseball jerseys, kneepads and boots. This style was particularly prominent in the video for “Real Love.”
MJB also cemented her “around the way girl” image during her famous appearance on a 1993 episode of “Yo! MTV Raps.” On the show, she sassily traded verses with Grand Puba, performing 411’s title track while rocking a Cross Colours outfit. Mary’s style during this time proved that women could dress like the boys and still ooze femininity. This image, which was also adopted by Aaliyah, TLC, Xscape and numerous others, is still being imitated in modern-day fashion by entertainers, influencers and music fans alike.
The decision to change all of the rules in R&B proved to be a smart move. After its release, 411 went on to peak at No. 6 on the Billboard 200. It also spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop albums chart. That success propelled our leading lady to become a living legend. In her 30-year career, MJB has earned nine Grammy awards, released 14 studio albums and has sold over 50 million records worldwide. Out of her expansive discography, critics often spotlight her emotionally charged sophomore album My Life as her most influential body of work. But 411’s indelible legacy 30 years later makes it a formidable contender.
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