As the last performer at BET's 2011 Black Girls Rock! awards show last month, Mary J. Blige took the stage, donning her classic look: a black wool fedora, tucked low and cocked to the side, revealing one eye heavy with a premature wisdom that comes only with singing through a lifetime's worth of pain.
She roared into "My Life," the title track from her sophomore album, which marked a breakthrough in her career and for hip-hop soul. The song, a bluesy call to tackle adversity head on, brought the multigenerational crowd — from 17-year-old new urban songstress Elle Varner to the iconic Angela Davis — to their feet.
"I love you ladies to death," Blige told the audience over howling applause at the end of the performance. But her devotees already knew that. Her till-death-do-us-part affinity for her fans is reciprocal, evidenced by her ability to stay relevant for nearly two decades. It's also proof positive that they are eagerly anticipating her 10th studio album, My Life II: The Journey Continues, set for release on Nov. 21.
The encore is only fitting, since her life's journey is worth documenting. Blige's rise from a talented but troubled around-the-way girl to an R&B icon might baffle critics who remember her from the '90s. Ironically, the life experiences — substance abuse, depression and a tumultuous romance with K-Ci from Jodeci — that gave birth to her deep, endlessly relatable lyrics were the same experiences that caused many missed appearances and botched live performances.
It was those moments that colored her career after the release of My Life in 1994, resulting in the overblown and widely circulated perception of Blige as a horrible singer. Her fans seemed to care not: My Life sold more than 3 million copies. Certified triple platinum. It was clear that what Blige gave her fans was more valuable to them than a pretty voice and perfect pitch.
For black women in the inner city who knew Blige's life experiences — growing up in the projects without a father, and everything that circumstance can bring with it — My Life offered them therapy. It gave them the kind of comfort that comes only with knowing they weren't alone. Blige sang of the hard-to-digest reality of black womanhood and brilliantly laced it with the possibility of healing. It was the perfect cocktail of hope, and her fans drank it up.
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.