Mary J. Blige, My Life

Peter S. Scholtes

By Peter S. Scholtes

on 10.20.11 in Reviews

Both singer and sound were more confident on this second album from Mary J. Blige, the first she co-wrote, and considered by many fans her best. Out went the chilly New Jack Swing echo and synth deco of her debut; in came an extended heart-to-heart with fans by the fire over a beat that meant business.

An extended heart-to-heart with more confidence

Let it be admitted that the sound is more conventional: The ’70s soul samples of the title track and “Be Happy” are seamlessly blended or recreated rather than recontextualized in a rap way — the direction executive producer Sean “Puffy” Combs and frequent studio guest the Notorious B.I.G. were taking hip hop in general. But if D.C.-hired producer Carl “Chucky” Thompson was brought in to make Blige sound like a true soul singer at home in her mother’s music, he did his job: Blige makes Rose Royce’s “I’m Goin’ Down” her own, in part because down was exactly where she was going.

My Life

Mary J. Blige

Or as she would sing 11 years later, “’94 was My Life, and my life wasn’t right, so I reached out to you and told you what I been through.” She also told you what she was still going through: “I’m satisfied even when I cry,” she sings on “No One Else,” presumably to the track’s co-producer K-Ci Hailey, whom she later described as the inspiration for much of My Life‘s blueness. “Mary’s Joint,” with its longing melody later borrowed for Janet Jackson’s “I Get Lonely,” sounds like hopelessness kidding itself, while the No. 1 dance hit “You Bring Me Joy” seems unconvinced. Most double-edged of all is “I Love You,” with its repurposed Isaac Hayes piano line and dog-whistle synth (a nod to Dr. Dre), as funky and resigned as Marvin Gaye at his most autumnal. Has the title sentiment ever sounded more doomed?

Blige put the question to herself squarely on “Be Happy”: “How can I love somebody else, if I can’t love myself enough to know when it’s time, time to let go?” The album sold 2.8 million copies in the U.S. and was nominated for a Grammy in the R&B album category. But it marked the twilight of Uptown Records and a parting of ways with Puffy.