Allow us to reminisce, about a promising 21-year old R&B singer who created the blueprint for contemporary R&B today. On 28 July 1992, Mary J Blige released her game-changing debut album, What’s The 411 and introduced to the world a fusion of R&B hooks and hip-hop beats and a sly producer named Puff Daddy.
At 18, Blige was the youngest artist and first woman signed to MCA’s hip-hop label, Uptown, founded by Andre Harrell a former VP at Def Jam who signed Blige after hearing her sing a version of Anita Baker’s 1986 hit, ‘Caught Up in the Rapture’ and immediately signed her in 1989.
It was there she would hook up with intern-turned A&R man and producer Puff Daddy (Sean Combs) who had taken on the reins for the newly signed acts, Blige and the R&B quartet, Jodeci. Combs was set on taking Teddy Riley’s ‘new jack swing’ and adopting it for the new generation by layering smooth R&B melodies and harmonies over classic hip-hop beats. The result was the new hybrid genre – hip-hop soul, that can be heard on his remix for Jodeci’s ‘Come & Talk to Me’ and Mary J’s breakout hit, ‘Real Love’ that featured Blige’s powerful vocals over Audio Two’s ‘Top Billin’ beats.
“Puff came with the sound. He came with the hip-hop and Mary came with the soul. That was the hip-hop soul”, Harrell recalled on the Rap Radar Podcast in 2016. “Attitude plus style plus talent was really what Uptown Records was about. We really wouldn’t sign the person who had talent but didn’t have style or attitude.”
Mary J Blige had the whole package. She had the street style, the swagger and the vocal intensity that were missing from the male-dominated rap and soul game in 1991. Hip-hop and new jack swing had already been creeping onto the pop charts with the success of Boyz II Men’s ‘Motownphilly’ and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam ‘Let The Beat Hit ‘Em’ while contemporary R&B was dominated by power ballads and female belters like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Lisa Fischer.
In the summer of 1992, Blige blew the roof off both, establishing herself as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’ when What’s The 411 went triple platinum, spawning six singles, including ‘You Remind Me’ and ‘Real Love’ and selling over 3.4 million copies. For the next year, the album was played indefinitely on rap, soul and pop radio followed by a slew of remixes that started the cycle all over again.
While many praised Combs as the Svengali of Blige’s success, carefully crafting her fly-girl next-door image and stacking the album with strategic samples and slick production, it was really Blige’s vocal prowess and the way she spoke to people in her songs that gained listeners’ loyalty. R&B loves its balladry, but Blige brought a sense of realism and gravitas to the heart of it, cutting through the saccharine promises of the crooner landscape to become the patron saint of the broken hearted for years to come. She was vulnerable but certainly not soft and as Blige later told The Guardian in 2005, “I had no idea that my personal pain would create such a big fan base. Everything that was bringing me down was everything that rose me up”.
Blige brought a sense of emotional maturity and self-awareness far beyond her 21 years that resonated with female and male audiences alike. It certainly helped that her debut encapsulated New York-driven hip-hop culture at that time and featured over 10 samples, multiple covers, features and influences that ranged from Chaka Khan, Ohio Players, Grand Puba, Busta Rhymes, Grover Washington Jr, Biz Markie, Schoolly D and countless others.
Her debut was an explosion of confidence with the first track ‘Leave A Message’, featuring just a running montage of hype by Busta “with an A” Rhymes and different artists praising the album. The title is a call back to Blige’s early days as a 4-1-1 telephone operator and from the jump, she breaks it down for the audience. On what otherwise would have been a slow, bittersweet ballad, the MC Lyte-sampling track, ‘Reminisce’, kicks right into gear with an uptempo, new jack flavour and features Blige’s raw vocals at the top – proving she didn’t need a beat to impress.
Despite not being the title track, ‘Real Love’ would become Mary’s big breakout and first top ten pop hit, hitting No.7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming a boom-bap anthem for generations. Just a year later, the remix would also top the charts and help put a little known emcee named Biggie Smalls, on the map.
Her other big single off the album is the gritty torch song, ‘You Remind Me’, which proved Blige could match vocal runs with the best of them. Unlike the divas of the day who were groomed for the pop charts at a young age, Blige brought her guttural, native-New Yorker inflection and new jack swagger to create a new style of ballad singing.
Even to the old guard of music criticism, Blige won over even the biggest sceptics with her cover of Rufus featuring Chaka Khan’s ‘Sweet Thing’. Her frank take on the soul classic appealed to a new generation when she warned future lovers,“don’t be so shady”.
Blige dips into her lower register for the jazz-fused single, ‘Love No Limit’ that’s one of her more experimental gambles on the album and certainly unlike anything else on urban radio at the time. Blige later teams up with K-Ci Hailey from Uptown labelmate, Jodeci on the stirring duet, ‘I Don’t Want To Do Anything’. The epic slow-jam caused many to speculate that the two were involved, especially after their MTV Unplugged appearance. But their turbulent romance hadn’t started yet, when his brother and Jodeci partner JoJo Hailey wrote the song.
On the closing track ‘What’s The 411’, Mary gets to show-off her flow and respond to every street corner cat-caller played by Grand Puba with, “don’t have no time for no wham bam, thank you ma’am!”, then breaking out into a short cover of a Debra Law’s ‘Very Special’. In just a few short bars, Mary proved she was more than just the around the way girl.
What’s The 411 is now available on coloured vinyl and can be bought here.
Follow our Mary J Blige Best Of playlist for more classic songs by Mary J.