In her documentary, Mary J. Blige stated that My Life was her most important album because there was a lot in her that she had to get out.
Good music is therapy, giving you a language to express yourself authentically. If you grew up in an environment where it wasn't cool or acceptable to vocalize your pain or joy, R&B provides a mechanism to put those feelings into words. There is no R&B without guts. This is the reason My Life claimed a hold on its fans for the last 29 years.
Before writing this, I listened to the album's inspirations—Curtis Mayfield, Roy Ayers, and Rose Royce, among others. I thought about the ways R&B fits into the Black oral tradition, how Blige reinterpreted songs from her childhood as a motif for her story and how My Life itself was a game-changer for female R&B after that. It wasn't the first personal album but consider the timing.
As R&B became inextricable from hip-hop, it also became more frank. You didn't have to decode lyrics and theorize who or what a song was about—everything was right there in the text. That level of transparency resonated with a generation of Black people who often had to be street-smart and self-sufficient at a very early age.
At its release, I was too young to understand the darkness behind some of the lyrics fully. I liked the beats and understood it was about love but not the pain behind the yearning. In "Be With You," Blige sings, "It seems like each and every time I come around / you don't want me there / and it's beginning to make me so scared / so scared that I might lose you." These are the lyrics of a torch song but set to a mid-tempo beat that knocks. This style persists throughout most of the album, where Blige yearns for tender care and caresses over a musical bed that invites a rap verse. Regardless of how calculated it may have been perceived then, it landed because of its honesty.
That honesty is why some albums are considered timeless. The production style and vocals are a delivery form, but personal stories will always be the engine. It allows songs to be reinterpreted in live performances and through covers and samples. It sticks to your guts because it comes from the guts. When some of us accuse R&B of dying or being dead, I often think it's because there's no story. There's no reason to sing if you have nothing to say. Blige stated in her documentary that she was singing for her life.
Much has been written about this album, its production style, and her relationships with Sean Combs and K-Ci Hailey. We'll never stop writing about it. My Life is a barometer that continues to influence young R&B artists, and Mary's story will never go out of style.
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