The queen of hip hop soul opened up recently about the legacy of arguably the most illustrious project of her illustrious career. A career that is filled with top ten hits, millions of records sold, nine Grammys, and an Oscar nomination while giving voice to so many who been through the worst life has to offer. The recent Hulu documentary My Life sheds light on what lead to the creation of the album of the same title that made Mary J. Blige immortal.
It was her sophomore follow up to What’s the 411?, which put her on the map after she signed with the late Andre Harrell and Uptown Records. Each track on My Life opened up a window into Mary’s deep pain and anguish and it was also an homage to the R&B/Soul sounds that she grew up with in a music loving family living in the Schlobohm Housing Projects in Yonkers, New York.
Paired with her mentor/producer Sean “Puffy” Combs and producer Chucky Thompson, Mary was able to channel her inner most struggles into lyrics that struck a chord.
The title track “My Life” which samples Roy Ayers, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” spoke to her need to be understood in the context of her despair. Her cover of Ross Royce’s “I’m Going Down” said it all about her need for unconditional love.
“Be Happy” attributed to her desire to find the happiness that she was denied.
In the midst of her groundbreaking work, the documentary revealed that it was during this time that she was battling with clinical depression, drugs/alcohol, and was in an abusive relationship with K‑Ci Hailey of Jodeci, who were also signed to Uptown.
“She was talking about how isolated she was” said music journalist Craig Seymour who interviewed Mary numerous times for publications such as Vibe Magazine.
“She talked about how the pen was her voice.”
It was with My Life that Mary cemented her status as the Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner of her time, a consequential black feminist/womanist performer who didn’t relent or held back from speaking truth to power. It also inspired and challenged other artists to dig a little deeper for their second album and if you look at the mid to late 90’s in the world of R&B you will see TLC’s CrazySexyCool, Brandy’s Never Say Never, and Monica’s Angel of Mine following that template.
After talking with Craig and learning about his experiences interviewing Mary, he had some of his own critiques of the documentary.
“It was historical” he said.
“We didn’t get the history of Uptown and why Uptown started fusing black youth culture and you didn’t get any sense of how groundbreaking it was at the time.”
With that said, he shared with me that My Life was going back to the roots of what black music has always represented and how that legacy was applicable to black life in the early and mid-1990’s.
“Black art was to remind us of our humanity and Mary is in a long line of artists that do that” he said.
“This is the music of a generation lost to crack cocaine and mass incarceration.”
If you want to see that impact that Mary’s music has on Black America watch the documentary and then look up a clip posted on Twitter not too long ago of a vigil for Breonna Taylor in which the crowd blasts and sings along to “Everything” of the Share My World album which happened be Breonna’s favorite song. In the end, Mary J. Blige shared her world and the world reciprocated with love, administration, and affection for her and all that she continues to represent.
Her music did more than just made us dance and bop our heads, it made us open our hearts and it also saved lives.
The queen has spoken.
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