listening to hip-hop history: mary j. blige – what’s the 411 (1992)

For my hip-hop history report, I knew I wanted to do it on an album by a female artist as mainstream audiences tend to forget the impact women have made in hip-hop from the beginnings through the golden ages to present-day, 2018. After viewing the list of seminal albums and taking my greater love for R&B music into consideration, I narrowed it down to Aaliyah 1996 sophomore, One in A Million and Mary J. Blige debut LP What’s the 411? I chose Mary J. Blige because I feel she has made a more substantial stamp on hip-hop music and culture while maintaining longevity.

I remember watching a special on Music Choice about the legacy of the Yonkers-raised songbird a few years back. Summing it up, before the late ‘80s, R&B, and hip-hop never came as one musically; it was as if they were mutually exclusive. The music industry was still unsure if hip-hop was going to be a commercial and critical juggernaut. New Jack Swing was the first to bridge hip-hop and R&B music with “swing beats” and go-go production. It paved the way for hip-hop soul, and 20-year old Mary J. Blige was the genre’s first test run.

Mary J. Blige’s debut album was the first time you heard hip-hop beats mixed along with R&B melodies. She was essentially being crowned and promoted as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” because of the combination of her and Puffy Daddy who executive produced the album. Mary had a sweet, soulful voice inspired by likes of Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Anita Baker whom she grew up listening to their music. Howard University student Puff Daddy, also from New York, at the time, was an aspiring music producer who interned at Uptown Records (Mary’s label). He went on to start his own label Bad Boy Records with a slew of artists (Biggie Smalls, Mase, Craig Mack) that captured the zeitgeist of hip-hop in the latter half of the ‘90s.

Mary’s raw soul voice singing over his jagged and jaunty hip-hop beats made the 1992 effort a game-changer. Mary even looked and dress the part. Back then, female R&B artists had a glamorous and classy look to them, and Sean “Puffy” Combs had a different vision for Mary. As he explained in a VH1 interview, his idea was for Mary to represent who she authentically was: a girl from the streets with hood tendencies opposite her counterparts — Whitney, Mariah Carey, and Toni Braxton.

What’s the 411? made the world of R&B and hip-hop become music and cultural allies, and it became set the blueprint for contemporary R&B. It also fed into the influence that hip-hop was beginning to have on R&B. The same way rappers Da Brat and MC Lyte had a tomboy approach to their music and image is what artists like Mary J. Blige and TLC took on at the beginning of their careers. The blockbuster success of Mary J. Blige would be the catalyst for female artists wanting to join the hip-hop soul wave throughout the mid to late ’90s either in the middle of their career (Mariah Carey) or from the jump (Faith Evans, Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah, Jennifer Lopez).

Before last week, I never listened to the full album except for “Real Love” which is one of Mary’s biggest hits. (I have heard “You Remind Me,” but it was the remix from her 1993 remix version of What’s the 411? then the original). I tend to be wary of listening to artists full albums besides the singles (or in today’s internet age) non-singles that people are buzzing about out of fear that there may be few songs that I may not be a fan of as known as “filler tracks.” I define filler tracks as songs that don’t enhance the quality of the full-length album but come off as quickly forgettable and are used to make sure the label can charge full CD price $16.99 and not EP price $7.99.

The first track was “Leave a Message” which was a collection of messages left on Mary’s telephone. It did not do anything for me; it is very seldom that I enjoy interludes or intros on albums. The second track and fourth track “Reminisce” and “You Remind Me” set the mood for the album as it fused ‘70s soul and street-ready hip-hop beats with a touch of jazz that can bring anyone to the dance floor at a summer block party.

When I listened to “Real Love” for the 20th time, I realized it touched off a wave of breakthrough singles by female R&B divas melodically singing over a hip-hop beat. Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” in 1994, Faith Evans “You Used to Love Me ” in 1995, and Destiny’s Child 1998’s hit “No, No, No, Part 2 were just some examples. I wasn’t a fan of the “Intro Talk” with Busta Rhymes since it was only him on the two-minute track. I enjoyed the rest of the album except for the title track at the end with Grand Puba. That song did not stand up musically and had me questioning why Mary would even attempt of spit bars (she came back to rapping many years later). Add to my lack of knowledge of her collaborator Grand Puba and the fact that she didn’t write these rap verses herself; I wasn’t even remotely turned on by that number. The highlights from the second half of the LP was her collaboration with K-Ci. from Jodeci because of their powerhouse vocals and musical chemistry and her “My Love” because of its regurgitated composition and catchy hook.

The album’s main topic (and what would become Mary’s signature sound) may be love whether it’s negative or positive, but it sheds light on the storytelling aspect we discussed in class. When I took a closer listen to the verses of some of her songs, she is telling a story to the romantic equivalent of an antagonist. I also believe that this album spoke to my analysis of beats and rhymes that hip-hop music didn’t have potency outside its catchy beats until the second half of the genre’s first 15 years of existence. Also, the flow and verse-chorus form terms we learned is in the production. Mary’s vocals precisely follow what a flow commands, which is going at the same pace as the beat.

As a conclusion, Mary J. Blige brought something different when entered the music industry in 1992 with her debut record What’s the 411? and 26 years later it’s hasn’t left the game. If anything, I believe that the album normalized the sample-heavy method in urban music. Hip-hop back then was sampling ‘70s funk, and soul records and R&B music was beginning to do the same to make a clear, concise and new school sound. Mary’s feminine emotions and rawness sung over cool masculine hip-hop beats were a first and it that winning combination is still acknowledged in the musical DNA of today’s wave of young female R&B singers.