Sunday 6 January 2013

Whatever Happened To RnB? - My Life by Mary J.Blige

Remember when Boyz II Men ruled the charts and Diddy was called Puff Daddy? In this weekly feature, I’m going to take a look back at some of the best RnB artists of yesteryear, sharing their signature videos and underrated hits, as well as looking at what they’re up to nowadays. Previous posts have focussed on Amerie, Jamelia, Macy Gray and Tweet. Today, it’s Mary J.Blige's turn!

Hey Mary!

But I want to take a slightly different approach for this post. Instead of looking back at all of Blige's best songs and videos (which could take a LONG time), I've decided to focus on a classic album of hers, which cemented Blige's position as the queen of hip-hop/soul and kickstarted a career that's spanned over twenty years. That album of course is 'My Life'.

'My Life' was released back in 1994, a few years after the mammoth success of Blige's debut 'What's The 411?'. Many hardcore RnB fans would argue that Blige's first studio album is her best, the one that would set the benchmark for the rest of her career, but I would have to disagree. Sure 'What's the 411?' is full of classic tracks like 'Real Love' and 'You Remind Me' but 'My Life' is one of those rare sophomore albums that improves upon an artists debut in almost every way.

So what's so great about 'My Life'? Yeah its a multi-platinum selling grammy nominated smash of a record but why has it since become regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time? Let's start off by looking at lead single 'Be Happy', which explores the universal desire to better one's life and is accompanied by a classic video which you should check out below, complete with its 90s sunglasses and silver jacket!

"I don't know why but every day I wanna cry." 

Back in the early 90s, Blige pioneered her unique blend of soul and hip-hop with the help of super producer Puff Daddy (how times have changed), to create a sound that appealed to both the 90s rap generation and fans of classic Motown music. 'My Life' somehow managed to sound both modern and timeless at the same time, without ever pandering to either audience. Here's my favourite album track, 'I'm The Only Woman', which shows Mary on the brink as she desperately tries to hold a failing relationship together. It's a stunning showcase of her soulful voice set against a hard hip-hop beat and the lyrics are a million miles away from the lacklustre choruses that most RnB stars are singing today.

"What more can I do to show you how much I care?" 

How does Blige bring together these two seemingly disparate genres and combine them so effortlessly into one unique sound? Ultimately, it's down to her authenticity as an artist. Blige penned almost every song on the album, working through her personal demons in her music and this is ultimately why 'My Life' has stood the test of time. The raw pain of Blige's battles with drug addiction and spousal abuse comes through in every note she sings and the emotional honesty she unveils on the album is devastating. Album track 'I Love You' is another beautiful example of Mary's struggle to deal with her pain at the end of a relationship and she sounds like she's on the verge of tears throughout. Heartbreaking. 

"You know I'll never live without you."

'My Life' isn't all just devastation and heartbreak however. Another reason for the album's popularity is its diversity and with her newfound success from 'What's The 411?', Blige had a lot to be happy about. The single 'You Bring Me Joy' is a heartfelt celebration of love that grabs the listener with its smooth vocals and confident swagger. My favourite songs from artists like Blige tend to be the ones about pain and sadness but Mary proves here that she's a rounded artist who can write about all the facets of her life and not just the darker ones.  

"So much joy in my world. Be my man and I'll be your girl."

Another strong theme of the album is sex, which of course is inextricably linked to both the ups and downs of any relationship. Babymaking third single 'Mary Jane (All Night Long)' shows a playful side to Blige with its cheeky lyrics but the song is never crass. Unfortunately, no music video was made to accompany its release which is a shame as it could have been really fun to watch Mary explore this side to her.

"Come into my bedroom honey. What I got will make you spend money." 

Blige doesn't hesitate to depict the other side to sex as well though, exploring its use as a weapon in the incredibly intimate album track 'No One Else'. The honesty of its lyrics are painful to hear and clearly come from a real place of abuse and sadness. Not many RnB artists would be brave enough to delve into the dark places that Mary explored at this stage in her career and its almost like a cathartic release for both her and the listener, which is an incredible thing for any singer to achieve.

"Yes I'm satisfied, even when I cry." 

Through all the hurt and joy, I feel that there's one central message to the album summed up in title track 'My Life', which was also the fifth and last single released from this collection. Its optimistic outlook on how you can learn from painful events in life is inspirational and elevates the album beyond just a typical break-up record into something even more special. Here's a live performance of the track that Blige recorded in 2011. Girl's still got it!  

"I know it is hard but we will get far."

There's not enough room here to share and discuss every track from 'My Life', although there are so many other great songs that you should check out, but to finish off, I wanted to take a look at the albums second single release, which has since become one of Blige's signature hits. 'I'm Goin' Down' was originally performed by Rose Royce for the film 'Car Wash' back in 1977 but Blige's cover is more well known these days. It's almost as if the song was written for Blige and it fits in perfectly alongside the rest of the album. With her gut wrenching vocal and sincere performance of the lyrics, Mary makes the song her own.  Here's the black and white video, which features multiple Mary's singing at a club. Classic.

So is 'My Life' the perfect album? Well I do find the interludes slightly unnecessary but they're not too long so they're not a huge issue. I also feel like there are a couple of weaker tracks around the middle of the album but despite it's long running time, 'My Life' is an incredible achievement. Blige tried to recreate the magic of the album almost twenty years later with the awkwardly titled 'My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1)'.

Despite being a relative success, both commercially and critically, I feel that Blige's more recent work lacks the vitality and raw emotion of her earlier albums. Saying that though, the fact that Mary can still release credible material after all these years is a huge testament to her talent; long may it continue. And who knows? Maybe one day, she might even record an album better than 'My Life' but for me, that will always remain my favourite Mary J. Blige record.

So are you a fan of 'My Life'? What's your favourite track? And do you think it's her best work? Let me know by commenting, liking and sharing below. And remember to come back next Sunday for another edition of Whatever Happened To RnB?

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