by Brooklyn White
Discovered in the late 1980s while singing Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture”, it’s fitting that heavy, stunning melismas and passionate belts are a part of Mary J. Blige’s set. Her ability to convey the lowest lows of love and her jazz-like live improvisations are reminiscent of Billie Holiday, but Blige will forever be unique.
Before Faith Evans, Mariah Carey, and Ariana Grande, Blige mastered the art of mixing gospel-inspired vocals with uptempo cuts, often with the help of notable MC’s. Her 1992 formal introduction (as she had been working as a background vocalist for years), What’s The 411?, was sample-heavy, street certified, and full of sweet hooks - aspects that are now a staple in Hip Hop/R&B. The “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” honed her signature sound over the course of her 25+ year career, giving us some of the most jammable, memorable songs in history. In honor of her legacy, here are our picks for her 10 Hip-Hop Soul tracks, with commentary by Brooklyn White.
“You’re All I Need” Remix
Technically this is a Method Man song, but there’s no denying that it would not be the same without Mary J. The incorporation of Mary on the heavy-handed sampling of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 60’s song of the same name made women gravitate towards the track, a crucial key to its success and Grammy win. In a talk with Complex, Method said, “I felt that song was putting me in that light. What I didn’t realize was, niggas was respecting that song as well as chicks was.”
Sporting her baseball jersey and combat boots, Mary showed herself as a regular girl from New York. Rocking round-the-way girl gear, a lot of Black women were able to see themselves in Mary. These same women were also into Hip-Hop and got their fill with the beat which took the drums from Audio Two’s “Top Billin’.”
“Love is All We Need” Remix ft Foxy Brown
Brooklyn’s Fox Boogie laid down some sexy smooth adlibs and a verse of course over this Diana Ross interpolation. As Brown says in the intro, the sounds were handled by the Trackmasters.
Dr. Dre produced this anti-holleration anthem. Those keyboard chords scream early 2000’s Dre. As the top commenter put it, “This is real Hip Hop”. Fosho.
“Reminisce” Remix ft C.L. Smooth
This is my absolute favorite Mary J. song. The original was more of a New Jack Swing ballad, but this version was produced by Dave Hall and Puff Daddy (yes, I said Puff Daddy) and had some flavor the prior one didn’t. Instead of a bridge, it featured input from C.L. Smooth, who was still getting a lot of spins for his ode to lost souls, “They Reminisce Over You.”
“All That I Got Is You” with Ghostface Killa
Taking a cue from fellow Wu Tang member Method Man, Ghostface enlisted the Queen of Hip Hop Soul for his debut solo single. For the grand occasion, RZA served up one of his world class beats, which takes its somber sound from “Maybe Tomorrow” by The Jackson 5. Mary sings the chorus that details the struggle of growing up with minimal resources and a single mother. This “child born in and of pain” set up is a long time theme in rap, with an early example including “The Message”.
“I Can Love You” ft. Lil’ Kim
Kim and Mary have been soul sisters for decades-Mary was photographed holding the Queen Bee down during Biggie’s funeral and 1997 and they were cheesing side by side in a M.A.C campaign. “I Can Love You” is a physical cementation of their alliance, taking its winding piano from Kim’s “Queen Bitch” and is all about being a better lover than another woman.
“Love Yourself” Remix ft A$AP Rocky
Digesting the truth, getting over obstacles and loving yourself no matter what is the theme of this track. Rocky replaced Kanye West in the video version, but they kept the trappy-horn laden backing. Blige rode the beat with ease.
“What’s the 411?” ft Grand Puba
“Yeah nigga, what makes you different than the next nigga? Seen you last week and you couldn’t even speak.” This introduced us to Blige’s rapping, a side that we would see on other songs like Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It” all-star cast remix. Here she and Grand Puba share their thoughts on gender relations, and she finishes her verse off with a cover of “Very Special” by Debra Lewis.
“Glow Up” ft Quavo, DJ Khaled, and Missy Elliott
I still think that this song was largely underdiscussed! Mary, Missy and a Migos all on one track? When will we ever hear that again? This cut from Blige’s latest offering ‘Strength of a Woman’ is all about leaving a loser behind.