One of the greatest performers to emerge out of the initial fusion of hip hop tinged R&B was Mary J. Blige. From seemingly out of nowhere she came with What’s the 411? . Easily one of the most important R&B albums of the ’90s. It was filled with the hurt, rage and pain of a rough past life in the ghetto. For many Blige was the new voice of the black inner city woman, a composed and dignified voice with street smarts that connected where others like Toni Braxton or TLC may have failed.
It was so powerful and new that a new category was created around her called hip hop soul. A category that she would be crowned queen of. Blige had a strong voice, although limited in range compared to Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, it conveyed passion and emotion with no equal. Many a comedy skit would be made based on Blige’s over singing, but she commanded a respect that made her no laughing matter. Besides, she looked very much the part of a downtown diva who did not take any crap (except from past lovers).
A team of hip hop luminaries including Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, Tony Dofat and Grand Puba helped craft a hard edged, yet melodic street sound. What’s the 411? was a good cross sample of what was going on in the world of early ’90s R&B and rap. Woven around the then new message machine dialogue concept, What’s the 411? was heavy with hits like the straight up R&B of ‘Real Love” and ‘Sweet Thing’ to the rap of the title song. It even had moments of new jack swing with ‘I Don’t Want to Do Anything’ featuring Joel “JoJo” Hailey from Jodice.
While musically, Blige had created something new, visually she helped define a new over the top ghetto style. The term “ghetto fabulous” may have been inspired by Blige’s stage wear and awards show appearances that featured outfits with enough bling to build a car. In al,l the album produced 6 hit singles with all of them breaking the top 40 pop charts while two of them making it to #1 on the R&B charts. Turn on any pop radio station in the summer of 1993, and chances were that you would hear something from What’s the 411? in its album or remixed form. There was a remix version of the album released a year after the original and a reissue in 2012.
Blige continues to wear the “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” crown as the field of female singers who aspire to the street hardness of rap and smoothness of R&B remains limited. Blige’s passion for the material she writes and sings has attracted other artist like Sting, Whitney Houston and Elton John to work with her.
Sometimes I wonder if the music industry respects Blige because she represents a true American success story. One of hard work, dedication and having the right connections to break through.
Then another part of me suspects that many are afraid of the authentic ghetto fabulous image she projects (in varying degrees). Maybe its the fear of a beat down but whatever it is Blige is a highly respected artist and performer who could make a Christmas album sound dramatic (she really did that). She has at least 12 albums under her fashionable belt and has made the jump to acting, although she shows no signs of slowing down her music career.