How Mary J. Blige’s Pain Drew Her to the Sunshine on ‘My Life’


In 1995, Mary J. Blige appeared on Showtime at the Apollo in a leather newsboy cap, a Vanson motorcycle jacket, and thigh-high boots to promote her newly released second album, My Life. She had the sold-out audience in the palm of her hands, rocking out with confidence and fly-girl swag to the Bad Boy Butter Remix of “Be Happy” featuring Keith Murray and “I’m Going Down,” a Rose Royce remake. 

In May, more than 25 years later, Blige, 50, would return to the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York, not as a performer but as an honoree. She was inducted into the historic Walk of Fame, following in the footsteps of cited influences and former collaborators such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Patti LaBelle, to name a few. She also earned the sash as the youngest living artist to be inducted.

In her acceptance speech, Blige revealed the release date of her much-anticipated Amazon Prime documentary titled Mary J. Blige’s My Life, out today. It’s a feature retrospect at how one of the most crucial albums in music history, made during the most vulnerable time of her life, solidified her as one of the soul greats.

Pioneering a genre that inspired many artists — from Mariah Carey to Alicia Keys to Keyshia Cole to Jazmine Sullivan, and many others — had to be stressful for an artist who came into the business at a young age, and not realizing such a thing was ever possible.

On the outside, there was a concern, as evidenced in the suspenseful My Life intro, that she couldn’t do it again. But, besides Puff Daddy, who spearheaded What’s the 411?, her monstrous 1992 debut album, none of the day-one songwriters and producers were involved with the 1994 follow-up. So, who better than Blige to produce the narrative of her sophomore album if not the predecessor’s masterminds. Her point of reference? Her life, of course. It didn’t just revolve around hardships that came along with it, but the music that carried her through.

Raised as Mary Jane Blige in the Schlobohm housing project in Yonkers, New York, she had seen and heard it all. Drug addiction and alcoholism, the cries of women abused, and everything else a child her age should never bear witness to. But not every day was a bad day, according to Blige in previous interviews. Listening to music from legacy artists such as Franklin, Wonder, Roy Ayers, Curtis Mayfield and Anita Baker gave her a reason to be happy, if only for a moment in time.

When you listen to My Life, you can immediately hear the music that Blige was attracted to as a child and influential in shaping her instrument as an emotionally open performer. On the sure-footed track, “I’m the Only Woman,” with its cold production inspired by a romantic scene in Mayfield’s Super Fly 1972 film, Blige provides definitive reasons to her man why another female can’t contest her love. She warns him not to follow in the tracks of his unwise father, who likely made the mistake of letting a good woman go. Her vocal prowess is seductive and raw, as the lyrics are direct and undisguised.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” reads Proverbs 18:21. For Blige, nearly 30 years of writing songs and sharing her triumphs and trials, even in her darkest hours, has saved the lives of women from all walks of life. Many of which had lost themselves in a stormy romance and felt their existence meant nothing to the world. Though Blige was mentally and emotionally oppressed, she had the strength to put into writing, “I just wanna be so, so, happy / But the answer lies in me,” for My Life’s leading single, “Be Happy.” 

It’s an optimistic song, co-written by a friend Arlene DelValle, about languishing for a sense of felicity within a troubled attachment, but more importantly, within herself to leave it all behind. Repurposing Mayfield’s 1979 classic “You’re So Good To Me,” particularly the drifting foundation and its ceaseless slap-bass, Blige, as evidenced in the song’s opening line, understands why she’s still hanging on to this unwanted lover: lack of self-love.

Still, she possesses self-awareness which is present in lines like, “I know the answer is in front of me / But when you think you’re in love / You only see what you wanna see.” In all, “Be Happy” is replete with helpful words for a naive person who no longer has to search blindly to gain contentment from another person when that’s always been in arm’s reach. 

Of course, “Be Happy” worked out to be another successful single for the fast-rising Blige, making it to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart and No. 29 on the Hot 100 in the winter of 1994. 

Isaacs Hayes, a prodigious trailblazer in Black soul music, was a nostalgic benchmark for Blige’s “I Love You,” a ruminative composition that takes inspiration from Hayes’ “Ike’s Mood.” Her streetwise emoting is engulfed in internal turmoil as she enters the bargaining stage of a breakup. It’s a place where she feels she can be unrepressed if her tormentor rethinks his decision about their relationship and gives it another shot. She insists over the melancholy piano sample and hip-hop thumps that he doesn’t “understand good love,” suggesting he’s never received it elsewhere. 

While “I Love You” reimagines most of its reconstructed production from Hayes, Chucky Thompson, who co-wrote and co-produced all but three songs on My Life, had mirrored the sound from a still-growing hitmaker. “I was trying to produce that record in a way that Dr. Dre would produce for her,” Thompson told Rated R&B in an unheard 2019 interview.

“You hear the little twangy keyboard lines and different things. I just laced the drums and put that bassline in there to give it that West Coast feel.” He said he got the inspiration after listening to Snoop Dogg’s 1993 Doggystyle album, produced entirely by Dr. Dre. “We were in love with what they were doing and we were trying to make our mark with what we were doing,” he added. 

In 2008, Cole, a graduate of Blige’s hip-hop soul academy, remade “I Love You,” alongside Lil’ Wayne, as one of the iTunes bonus tracks from her third album A Different Me. While modernized to align with the current landscape, Cole refreshingly left the integrity of its soulful rawness intact with her pensive delivery. 

Blige is at her best when her shoot from the hip voice imbues with much pathos and tenderness. On “Don’t Go,” which is in the company of three samples, a young Blige is terrified at the notion of her man possibly closing the door on their love. Her cavernous tone is smeared in different shades of blue, as she dramatizes why she can’t fathom another blow to the heart if he decides to walk out.

Besides dusting off ‘80s samples from Guy and DeBarge for integral parts of “Don’t Go,” Blige also utilizes “Speak to My Heart,” performed by The New York Restoration Choir, courtesy of Donnie McClurkin, for the repetitive outro. According to Thompson, Faith Evans, whose gospel-infused vocals matched Blige’s grit, contributed this interpolation to the My Life recording process. “I can’t even take credit for [that sample]. It was all her,” he said to Rated R&B. “Mary is soul music all day. We had to get Faith into soul because gospel was totally her thing.” 

In a previous interview with Rated R&B, Evans mentioned that “a lot of the album was already done” before she got involved. Though, she noted that she would get called in on occasion by Puff Daddy “if something was missing like a bridge, a hook or a vamp.” Her addition to “Don’t Go” was another fine example of how her ingrown gospel upbringing benefitted the modern R&B blueprint. And in 2017, the song received a second life thanks to Bryon Tyiller’s “Stay Blessed” from True to Self. 

Contrary to the belief that Blige is typecast as a hip-hop artist whose music is very reliant on antique samples from all-time greats, this is entirely true, especially on My Life. “I Never Wanna Live Without You,” the most extended ballad of yearning on the album, refutes those remarks. Complemented by dreary instrumentation of keys and a subdued kick drum, Blige, her voice soaked in heavy notes of longing, tests out riffs and runs to plead grossly for her heartbreaker to stay. Again, Evans’ churchy presence is felt in the layered harmonies.

An album can’t be made without at least one song to affirm artists and those involved are in the right direction. “Be With You” was that song for My Life, confirmed Blige in the new doc. It was another album original, unsupported by a familiar interpolation or sample. Yet, it influenced Dr. Dre and the G-funk whistle sound that he made famous in the West Coast sound in the ‘90s. It opens the controversial track and permeates throughout. Vocally, she takes cues from her idol Anita Baker but is blemished yet piercing.

Her delivery is relatable, singing as if she has her man cornered in the kitchen, drilling him about how his nonchalant attitude has left her feeling unloved and unappreciated. While Blige released HERstory Vol. 1, a compilation of early ‘90s staples and remix rarities, one was arguably missing: the “Be With You (Remix)” featuring Lauryn Hill. A gem for sure.

Title tracks are not far and few in Blige’s prestigious catalog, considering at least five of 13 studio albums have one. But the album’s eponymous track is by far the most essential song in the history of Mary J. Blige. Yes, the hits are notable on the charts and top of mind for fans and critics. Still, this record, similar to a later standard (“No More Drama”), transcends race, color, gender, and everything else in between because it’s music therapy concealed in just over four minutes of self-revelation. 

The 1976 Roy Ayers legendary jam “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” is sampled on Blige’s title track to point out once again how influential art from yesteryears sewed into her as a child and later as an artist. As the title suggests, warmth is on the side of those who love it. Ayers captured this pleasure of dog days, whether through the rubbery synthesizer or the woozy vibraphone.

On the other hand, Blige didn’t recall summer madness on her rendition of Ayers’ relaxed hypnotic spiral. Instead, she, along with the gloominess of Thompson and Puff, changed its original forecast from radiant and cloudless to dreary and darkened. But it’s how she felt inside, all day, every day, at that time. Though, in her misery and unhappiness, she ministered to herself and others that embracing the many discomforts of life instead of cowering away from it will act as its own soothing agent. 

Blige’s recent live performances of “My Life” evoke that feeling at a Black church revival where the home pastor, labored voice and forehead of sweat, rendered a familiar sermonette that wasn’t disfavoured but found appropriate, depending on where you, as his flock, were in life. Her 2011 rendition of this therapeutic composition at the Black Girls Rock is a true testament of how powerful its message is to people and how dear it is to their hearts and lives.  

In 2011, the thought to release a sequel or, as she described, “an extension of how far we’ve come” to her seminal 1994 work was actually considered and released. It’s rather surprising that Blige even attempted to associate the title My Life to her future projects, considering how precious those telling songs that logged the sensitive worries of her heart and mind are to the culture and herself. It’s only taken Blige a decade later to publicly acknowledge that recreating a moment in time such as that is impossible. “I tried, but n—ggas was like, ‘Nah, we good.’ History is history,” she said in a recent interview with Power 105.1’s Breakfast Club. 

Robert Ector

Mary J. Blige is a lot of things. The undisputed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. The only artist with Grammys wins in four distinct genres. The first person to score Academy Awards nominations in performance and original song categories in the same year for the same film. A cultural icon, and so on. She is also one of the few artists who have songs in their catalog that they never themselves have to perform live again. Their fans will. Imagine crowds of thousands belting out every word to a remake like “I’m Goin Down” that you made more signature than the original act. It’s a clear indication Blige should live every day in the sunshine. She’s earned it. 

Revisit Mary J. Blige’s My Life album below. Also, watch her new Amazon Prime documentary, Mary J. Blige My Life, now.

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