All Hail the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul
With the sequel to My Life, Mary J. Blige reminds us why her throne is really the one to watch.
For other black women, My Life was an outlet for collective sympathy. Blige gave them the means to connect to a sisterhood that they knew but couldn't always see. She told her story with such authenticity that those who didn't have the same personal hardships still knew that her struggles could easily have been their own.
And women aren't her only fans. To celebrate the 15-year anniversary of the album in 2009, My Life producer Chucky Thompson hosted Men Love Mary: A Tribute to My Life, an all-male EP that covered songs from the album. And if, in Blige, black men didn't always see their mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends or wives, their favorite rappers did. To Jay-Z, Nas, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, the Notorious B.I.G., Common and a host of other emcees she's collaborated with, Blige was their undisputed queen.
Since My Life, she has kicked her drug habit -- and K-Ci -- to the curb and married her manager, Kendu Isaacs, a turning point in her evolution as an artist. Today, gone are the critiques of Blige as an awful crooner and a less-than-stellar performer. A performance of "No More Drama" at the 2002 Grammys quelled those reports, and there's been no trace of them since.
Now, with My Life II, Blige is poised to re-energize longtime fans and bring newer fans into the fold. The album is not short on megastars -- Beyoncé, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and Drake are only a few of the big names on the track listing. With all-star production from Diddy, Jermaine Dupri and Swizz Beatz, it's likely that My Life II will be her 10th No. 1 album on the Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B chart.
But to her fans and to the legacy she has already established, the numbers don't matter. Her importance to a generation of young black people can't be measured. We can thank Blige for what is arguably R&B's most shining run in the '90s: SWV, Xscape, Faith Evans and countless others who followed in her footsteps. She popularized the melding of R&B and hip-hop, and there is no other soul singer more important to rap than Blige. She gave the hip-hop generation what Aretha Franklin gave the civil rights generation: a sound track and a voice. For that, she is indeed the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
Here's to a continued reign.
Akoto Ofori-Atta is assistant editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.