How Mary J. Blige Provided The Soundtrack For Our Lives

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by Charing Ball

I just purchased Mary J. Blige’s My Life II album via Amazon and I am patiently waiting for it to come…

In the meantime, I decided to go back in time, dust off the cassette tape, dig out the boom box and chill out to the original My Life. I had long been a fan of Mary J. from the very first time I saw the You Remind Me video on BET. I was mesmerized at how an R&B singer could maintain her femininity while appearing in a fitted baseball cap jersey, a pleated mini and a pair of Tims [boots]. Back then it was unheard of.

R&B singers were supposed to be soft and pink at all times.  She begins the song manipulating through a chorus of crescendo, which is typical of a standard R&B ballet, until the record scratches, the beat drops and Mary reappears neck rolling and gesticulating, which was usually the MO of rappers. As she kicks, stomps and bobs feverishly next to Greg Nice from Nice and Smooth, Mary snarls her lips and calls out: “Yo puff that’s the knock right there boy!”  Awe snap, time to party.

I remember like it was yesterday. A group of us girls and Sharif (because even back then we had our gay best friends) huddled around our hideaway desks in 3rd period Spanish class, with our asymmetrical wraps [hairstyles], cheap gold name plate earrings and jean sets, smacking our gums (both kinds) about who was better: Mary J. Blige or CeCe Peniston? “I like CeCe Peniston, she can really blow,” my best friend said, as she popped her gum.  “Uh-uh, Girl Mary is way better than CeCe Peniston. CeCe can sang but Mary gots that flava,” we debated as Mr. Sebastian, our 9th grade African Spanish teacher yelled at us to stop interrupting his class and pay attention.  True Story.

If Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul than Mary J. was definitely the queen, if not the creator, of the newest genre of music called Hip-Hop Soul. At a time in Black musical history when songstresses like En Vogue, Tracy Spencer and Shanice were playing up either the cutesy, girl next-door role, taking the dance/house route or pushing the sexier, sophisticated angle, Mary was blazing a trail of her own.  One that involved bringing the Hip-Hop inspired romantic trails and tribulations of the everyday Fly Girl to the mainstream. The type of girls that sometimes curse, bust into freestyles, blow trees, knew all the lyrics to “Round the Way Girl” and strutted down the streets in plaid flannel shirts, baggy jeans and Air Force Ones, but yet was still understood and was deserving of love.

Mary J. could also rap too as demonstrated by title song of her debut album, What’s the 411? featuring Grand Puba from the infamous Brand Nubians.

All doubt, which had been exhibited by my high school girlfriends and Shariff had all but dissipated by the time the title track of her breakthrough sophomore CD “My Life,” hit the airwaves about two years later. With songs like Be Happy, I’m Going Down and of course the title track, our sentiments were reaffirmed. That title track was a revision of Roy Ayers’ classic Everybody Loves the Sunshine into her magnum opus for all young women – and some older ones too – who struggled through love, becoming young baby moms, rejecting and finding out where they fit in the world that just didn’t get us.

By the time the album dropped, I was a junior, perhaps a senior, in high school and had already experienced my first sexual experience and subsequently, my first heartache courtesy of a half-Black, half-Puerto Rican knucklehead, who decided after he got the goods that he just wasn’t ready for a girlfriend.  It was hard to blink back the tears as I sat through my first listen of My Life.  The album would get me through not only my teenage years but through most of my college years, when I would experience several other heartbreaks.

And I wasn’t alone; the untamed voice of Mary’s rang out of almost every room in the freshmen dorm at Virginia Union University. Young woman, book smart but yet oh-so-dumb about the matters of the heart, sulked, cried over and wailed out in excruciating pain and agony on top of some of the album’s most memorable gut-wrenching lyrics, for the love that they could not get over.

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