Where To Start With... Mary J. Blige
In the 23 years that have passed since the release of her debut album What's the 411?, there isn't much that Mary J. Blige hasn't achieved. Known as 'The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul', Blige is credited with virtually inventing the modern R&B sound by blending soulful vocals with gritty hip-hop beats, paving the way for everyone from Mariah Carey to Beyonce and becoming one of the most influential female artists of the last two decades. With career sales totalling somewhere north of 50 million albums and 25 million singles, she's also one of the most commercially successful.
But her achievements aren't limited to record sales: Blige is a recipient of eight Grammy awards (in four different categories) from a record-breaking 30 nominations, while her career as an actress has seen her appear in TV shows such as Entourage, Empire and 30 Rock, as well starring roles in films including Betty & Correa and Mudbound.
As you might expect from an artist whose sphere of influence has ranged far and wide over the years, Mary J. Blige has a pretty impressive contact book and her last album, 2014’s The London Sessions, called upon a host of British talent as collaborators, including Sam Smith and Disclosure. On her thirteenth studio album Strength of a Woman, which arrives in stores today, the guest list isn’t quite as long, but it’s no less exciting.
Kanye West puts in a superb appearance on the album’s lush, soulful opening salvo, 'Love Yourself', while Missy Elliott appears alongside DJ Khaled and Quavo on 'Glow Up', both of which are album highlights. Kaytranada puts in a shift on 'Telling the Truth', which he also produces alongside BadBadNotGood, and Prince Charlez rounds out the guest roster with an appearance on 'Smile'.
Like any artist who has been influential enough to inspire countless others, career longevity brings with it the challenge of staying ahead of the pack, but Mary J. Blige has always been pretty savvy in this regard and on Strength of a Woman she continues to follow her own path, helped by some excellent production from DJ Camper and Brandon 'B.A.M.' Hodges, who are manning the controls on the lion's share of the album's 14 tracks. Opener 'Love Yourself' is a case in point, skilfully blending elements of classic soul with contemporary beats that sound fresh without chasing trends.
Also on the production roster this time around are Miami duo Lamb & Bigg D, who provide the beats on 'Find the Love', with Neff-U producing 'Smile' and Hit-Boy providing the goods on the album's closing track, 'Hello Father'.
Blige's last album, The London Sessions, was hailed as her best since the mid-2000's and while this is a very different beast than its predecessor, that return to form continues here and even if her commercial success over the last decade hasn't matched her earlier years, her recent work shows that she's still a class act who is capable of an emotive vocal delivery that many of her peers would struggle to match.
You can find video for the powerful 'The Thick of It' below, beneath that we've picked out five key tracks as a reminder of some of her best moments...
What's astonishing listening back to this cut from her 1992 debut What's The 411? is how many songs have since followed the same sonic template – it sounds very much of its time as a result, but if you wanted to pick one track that typified the sound of early 90s R&B, you needn't look much further than this.
1994's My Life has been cited by many as one of the greatest R&B albums ever recorded and of all the great moments on Mary J. Blige's Grammy-winning sophomore album, 'Be Happy', based around a funky Curtis Mayfield sample, is arguably the finest. It's a proper summer tune too.
'Love Is All We Need'
Taken from 1997's Share My World, 'Love is All We need' is another gold-plated R&B classic from the 90s and another perfect song to play on a summer's afternoon, this time featuring Nas, who adds in some rhymes on the second verse.
By the time of 2001's No More Drama, Blige was at the peak of her creative and commercial powers and if you only know one of her songs, it's probably this. With a distinctive beat courtesy of Dr. Dre, this is, along with the title track, one of the highlights of an album that really exhibit's Mary J.'s hip-hop credentials, with appearances from the likes Pharrell and Missy Elliott.
Our final pick is from 2011's My Life II: The Journey Continues... and features none other than Drake, who opens the proceedings on this banger of a slow jam, which is one of the record's best moments and includes production from Jim Jonsin and Rico Love.