Mary J. Blige and executive producer Sean “Puffy” Combs didn’t invent hip-hop-inflected, female-sung R&B in 1992 — En Vogue and Soul II Soul had beat them by a couple years in a tradition stretching back to Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You.” But Blige was hip-hop in a new way: vocally tough and emotionally frank, with an unmistakable New York walk and evident roots in both all-night Pentecostal gospel and African American radio’s Quiet Storm heart. Catching the ear of Uptown Records via a taped karaoke cover of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture,” Blige was like fire through a window compared to Baker’s smoke under the door, her mezzo-soprano as womanly, but short-circuiting technique for brutal, eloquent feeling.
So the bad notes and dirty drum loop of the single “You Remind Me” reached the charts first, while much of the rest of her debut album — “Reminisce,” “Love No Limit,” “Slow Down,” “Changes I’ve Been Going Through,” her cover of Khan’s Rufus hit “Sweet Thing,” and the title track, featuring Blige rapping with Grand Puba — is down-home and gritty. But the all-time statement of purpose is “Real Love,” written and produced by Prince Markie Dee of the Fat Boys and Mark C. Rooney, who took a broke-off beat from Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” to build out an Elton John-sized corner-stoop of madly swinging piano rock and buoyant synthesizer strut, the wail-along chorus something few other singers could pull off.
The song went Top 10 pop and No. 1 R&B, maybe because Blige’s yearning accepted her impulse to fall too hard and fast, establishing a dynamic of audience sympathy before it would seem cultivated. To watch her MTV Unplugged performance of “I Don’t Want to Do Anything” with K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci is to see a woman painfully in love with a man unable or unwilling to reciprocate.
The album sold 3.3 million copies in the U.S. without any Grammy nominations, the biggest long-player of Blige’s career. A remix collection followed in ’93 compiling the “Hip-Hop Mix” of her signature song, featuring the Notorious B.I.G. (“Big E. Smalls”).