The Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul
While Hip-Hop saw during the 90s a handful of women who gave the genre a breath of fresh air with their fierceness, the R&B world welcomed a different kind of Queen, one that was able to merge two worlds. Mary J. Blige was the woman to bring together the smooth tradition of R&B and Soul with the urban edge of Hip-Hop.
For this reason, she was crowned the Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul by the critics and the public alike. It is a title she still proudly preserves, 25 years into a stellar career.
What’s the 411?
In 1992, a 21 years old Mary J. Blige made her debut in the record business with an album that quickly became an iconic landmark in R&B. What’s the 411? was released by Uptown Records, under the supervision of a young Sean Combs, who then went by the name of Puff Daddy.
As the executive producer of the album, he is to be credited with giving Mary the direction that would launch her and make her a star. She, however, deserves credit for her great talent. The soulful, sweet vocals she delivered on the album, paired with the hard hitting beats producers like Dave Hall delivered, masterfully shaped the genre.
Mary poured her heart and soul into songs such as “You Remind Me,” “Real Love” or “Love No Limit,” which became big hits and classics. Drawing comparisons to icons Chaka Khan (whose “Sweet Thing” she covered on this album) and Anita Baker, she infused new life to the sound of 80s Rhythm and Blues and earned her place among the greats.
A remixed version of the album was released the following year, featuring Rap verses from pretty much everyone that mattered in Hip-Hop at the time (Biggie, Crack Mack, Heavy D, Andre Harrell, Kid Capri, and more). This remix album helped to establish Mary as the Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul.
As Mary’s journey in music progressed, she had to face her ups and downs. Written and recorded during a low point in her life, her sophomore record, My Life, appeared in 1994.
Once again Puff Daddy was the man behind it, but it was Mary’s struggle that was sapiently chronicled into the records she sang. Battling addiction, an abusive relationship and clinical depression, Mary once again took to music and her voice to express everything she kept inside and gave us gems such as a cover of “I’m Going Down,” “Mary Jane (All Night Long),” “I Love You,” “Be Happy” or the jazzy title track “My Life.”
In true Puff fashion, the numerous soul samples only reinforce the tie between the traditional R&B world of the 70s and 80s and the Hip-Hop edge Mary brought forward with her 90s sound. Mary was singing over the same sort of beats Puff would give to her Hip-Hop counterparts.
The album as thus been hailed as one of the greatest R&B records of the 90s and is widely regarded as a classic. Not only that, but her strong alliance with Puffy combined with the hardness of her sound and the honesty of her lyrics truly helped to crown her the Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul. Mary might have sang her lyrics with soul, but the content had the same realness that defined the best of Hip-Hop.
The Late 90s
Even when Mary and Puffy parted ways in the second half of the decade, she still continued to merge and ride the line between Hip-Hop and R&B.
In 1996, her collaboration with Method Man on “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By” earned Mary a Grammy award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. She was also featured on Jay-Z’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle” from his debut album Reasonable Doubt, which helped put him on the map. She was the first female singer to feature on a Jay-Z track.
On her 3rd album, 1997’s Share My World, Mary collaborated with Lil’ Kim and Nas on two of the album’s singles and most recognisable tracks, “I Can Love You” and “Love Is all We Need” respectively. This move helped bridge the gap between crossover R&B and Hip-Hop.
By the end of the decade, Mary J. Blige was a household name. With millions of records sold and with numerous collaborations, she had attracted the attention of the mainstream and international audiences, through her fusion of soulful R&B and Hip-Hop. She effortlessly continued to reign as the Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul.
The new millenium started for Mary with the release of the acclaimed No More Drama in 2001. The album was the soundtrack of the singer’s hectic and distressed life and an attempt to finally break free from her personal struggles.
The first single “Family Affair,” produced by Dr. Dre became her biggest hit at that point. It was upbeat, fun and danceable, but also an example of how effortless it is for Mary to play with Hip-Hop and make it her own. Dr. Dre was one of Hip-Hop’s biggest names, but not only that, he represented the West Coast. By collaborating with him, Mary, an East Coast native, showed unity within the genre.
A Disco-flavored remix of “No More Drama” produced by P. Diddy and Mario Winans, hinted at a reunion between Mary and Diddy. The two of them officially reunited on the 2003 Love & Life album, which also saw collaborations with Method Man, Eve and 50 Cent.
Even when Mary found happiness and love, she continued to use her music to uplift other women and became the voice of those who struggled with bad relationships and just life in general. The Breakthrough, released in late 2005, saw Mary claim her throne as the reigning Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul once again with critical acclaim and commercial success.
The album’s biggest hit “Be Without You,” reportedly influenced by Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” is a spin on the Rap ballad with soulful vocals, relatable content and a melodic approach. Mary also reworked The Game’s “Hate It or Love It” to chronicle her journey in the industry and proclaim her royalty status on the chorus. Mary’s rap alter ego Brook Lynn also debuted on the hard hitting “Enough Cryin’,” serving a few bars of her own.
The current decade has given Mary J. Blige the opportunity to explore new territories with her music.
In 2014, she brought her sound to the UK and worked with up and coming British producers to revamp her image as an international star. The result was The London Sessions, which didn’t turn out to be a successful venture on the market, but proved that Mary still has the drive and passion of her early days.
Today, 25 years into her career, Mary is facing new personal struggles with her divorce from her husband, but she’s still perched on that throne she built for herself.
Strength of a Woman, her 13th album released earlier this year, contains some of her best work this decade. Songs like “Love Yourself” with Kanye West, or “U+Me (Love Lesson)” allow us to reminisce on the love we’ve always had for her. Meanwhile, a song like the DJ Khaled helmed “Glow Up” shows Mary’s ability to bridge the gap between generations, by featuring both the iconic Missy Elliott and newcomer Quavo of Migos. Not only that, but the fact that she featured Kanye on “Love Yourself” amidst a rather controversial year, shows that Mary truly has real love for the Hip-Hop Kings.
If she isn’t the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, then who is?