The thing is called HERstory for a damn reason: Blige made hip-hop her own.
Mary J. Blige isn’t exactly underrated. She’s got plenty of accolades, including a Legends Award, several multi-platinum albums and that “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” title. But now that these achievements are more than a decade behind us, it’s high time for a reminder of Blige’s greatness.
The new, expansive compilation HERstory, Vol. 1 certainly provides this. Consisting of several of Blige’s finest singles and rare remixes from the ‘90s, the collection transports listeners back to the (near) beginnings of Blige’s storied career. There are two main Mary J. Blige LPs represented here, 1992’s What’s the 411? and 1994’s My Life, but the point of this anthology isn’t to spotlight those longer works. Instead, it’s all about the hits and their historic flipsides. “Historic” might seem an exaggeration, but peep the names of the rap collaborators on these remixes: The Notorious B.I.G., Craig Mack, Smif-N-Wessun, LL Cool J. The compilation is a reminder that Blige was not only great but also consistently surrounded by greatness.
Still, it’s important to emphasize that she is as much a pioneer as any of the figures listed above. The songs on HERstory, Vol. 1 represent an incredibly influential combination of R&B and hip-hop sounds and styles. Blige is completely at home on these groundbreaking works, whether she’s rapping or singing, regardless of if she’s taking listeners to church, as on “Love No Limit (Puff Daddy Mix),” or to a more uncertain space just beyond its doors, as on “You Don’t Have to Worry (Remix Main with Rap).” Her impressive yet restrainedly candid voice communicates authenticity, a completely fraught concept but one absolutely central to that ‘90s hip-hop game. Hearing these bangers, you never doubt for a second that Blige comes from the same bullet-scarred settings as her rap peers.
And in fact, she does. Raised mostly in The Bronx and Yonkers, Blige faced incredible hardships as a young person: a Vietnam veteran father with PTSD, a family member that molested her at a young age, pervasive sexual harassment and problems with self-medication and addiction. When she sings, “All I really want is to be happy,” we can recognize immediately that the words are deeply felt. As listeners, we actively cheer for her to get what she desires, even as her music implies that the world around her makes this no easy thing.
Desire is one of Blige’s key concerns across these early tracks, whether that desire is erotic, financial or romantic, and she excels at communicating her feelings in a clear, versatile way. “Come into my bedroom, honey/ What I got will make you spend money,” she insists on “Mary Jane (All Night Long),” perhaps in part because she spent a lot of time around rappers ready to spend it. On “You Bring Me Joy,” her longing comes across as totally hopeful yet tempered by unspoken previous experiences: “I want you to take my hand and promise you’ll be cool/ Because I know you like the way that I move.”
But you would be mistaken to understand her aspirations to relational fulfillment as somehow betraying weakness. Her approach undoubtedly represents a kind of black femininity that can be just as resilient as the hyper-masculine dudes hopping on her remixes. This is most readily apparent on “What’s the 411?,” a duet with Grand Puba that finds her asserting, “I don’t have no time for no wham bam, thank you ma’am/ Gas me up, get me drunk and hit the skins and scram/ The same old shit you pulled last week on Pam/ I’m not having that, no I’m not having that.” These rapped lines hint at another direction that Blige’s career might have taken and suggest that figures like Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill and Ja Rule owe no small debt to Blige’s boundary-busting combination of sauciness and sincerity.
Diddy’s work behind the boards also deserves acknowledgment. Sean “Puffy” Combs executive produced What’s the 411? and co-produced every single track on My Life. Although Blige never signed to Bad Boy Records, her work represents the beginnings of that mid-to-late ‘90s Bad Boy sound. Combs relied heavily, as he would continue to do in his later work, on funk and soul samples, with “Mary Jane (All Night Long)” a clever reworking of jams by Mary Jane Girls and Teddy Pendergrass and Method Man-assisted “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By” an updated take on the famous Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet. But it’s Blige’s impassioned voice and artful writing that help turn these tunes from uninspired retreads to modern classics.
HERstory, Vol. 1 isn’t a perfect treasury of Blige’s beginnings. For one, it doesn’t feature any songs, in demo form or otherwise, from before the release of her first album. The space the collection intends to inhabit, between reissue and greatest-hits compilation, leaves listeners with more questions about Blige’s origins than answers. At the same time, it does help frame these questions as significant ones for thinking about urban music in the early ‘90s and the development of hip-hop more generally. It shows that Blige was instrumental to the genre’s move away from discordant, rock-oriented production and noisy New Jack Swing towards a more melodic sound that would help rap find greater mainstream success. Even though collaboration was incredibly important to this move, the thing is called HERstory for a damn reason: Blige made hip-hop her own. Even though it might be tempting, from the vantage point of 2019, to chalk up hip-hop’s contemporary love affair with catchiness or smoothness to more recent artists, don’t get it twisted. Blige was there first, with a combination of coolness and sensitivity that’s near impossible to mimic.