We here at South Shore Ave are gassing up the DeLorean & taking you back to the musical Golden Era of 90’s music to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of one of the Greatest albums in R&B history. Twenty years from tomorrow, coming off the success of What’s the 411?, Mary J Blige gave us the gift that was My Life, an album that solidified her as the R&B voice for her generation. As we celebrate My Life, we’ll review some of our favorite songs from the classic LP. I know you can hear me now…..
**DISCLAIMER — This is not a Top 5 list. You could make a honest argument for 10 songs from this album being in the Top 5. This is strictly a review a collection of songs from the album.**
“All those pretty memories / I know you can hear me now / For the record / I love you / I love you“
I shine…… you shine (shine)…….. I shine……. you shine (shine)……. I shine…….. you shine (shine)…….. I shine……. you shine (shine)…….. I shine…….. you shine……. and this day and time / we maintain / the same frame of mind / elevation / spark it up / Yo Start the circulation / 360 degrees of rotation……
…… so I can’t just recite the whole first verse of the remix? Would this be considered as a crime of laziness? Ok, fine. So I won’t do that, but I will say this: you’ll be hard pressed to find another album with so much legendary remixes off the singles. This is no knock whatsoever on the original version of the record. If there weren’t a remix, this song would be incredible anyway with the piano loops & that hard bass line that came from the mind of Chucky Thompson (well, sort of). It’s a beautiful record in every which way. BUT when they threw in Smif-N-Wessun (who were an hot up & coming duo from the Boot Camp Click, that was about to release their own debut album Dah Shinin’) on the beginning of the remix, it metamorphosed into the perfect marriage between R&B and Hip Hop. It’s something that Mary J mastered throughout her entire career, singing over hip hop beats & working with rappers so seamlessly. You couldn’t find anyone who didn’t love that record. Even the hardcore hip hop heads who never listened to R&B unless their sister was playing it in the house, had to add this single to the collection.
When I’m 80 years old, and this song comes over whatever speaker device will be around by then, I will get up & do the Puffy dance until I pop my hip out of place. I can’t stress this enough, play this remix to any Montrealer between the ages of 30 – 45 years old, & they’ll lose themselves in that “I Shine, You shine” call-and-response. This is arguably one of the best remixes she was ever a part of, & she had a whole damn album specifically for remixes. It’s hard to separate the remix from the original because they both use the same beat, but you can’t discuss the original without discussing the remix. It’s impossible.
Singing cover songs for artists are tricky. Depending on the kind of song that’s being selected by the artists as well as their vocal range, they can either do a song justice, or just ruin the record to shit. When I was younger, I didn’t have a problem with Michael Bolton, I really didn’t. Then again, I thought those were his songs. Once I heard the originals to them, it made me wanna shave a bald spot into his curls. On the flip side, Luther Vandross did a lot of cover songs & more often that not, killed the original to the point where you pretended he created it himself. In the 90’s, Jodeci annihilated Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” in one of the more memorable cover performances & for this album, Mary J made Rose Royce’s, “I’m Going Down“ into her own song. If she were a gymnast, her artistry on this track would be equivalent to a quadruple cartwheel, where she does a crazy flip & sticks the landing on the corner of the mat. Not only did you feel the talent in the song, you felt her pain so much so that, if she started sobbing towards the end of the song, you wouldn’t have been surprised.
This song was probably the best representation of her life at the time & not just because of the song title. As reported at the time, she was going through depression and battling with drugs and alcohol. I have this depressing theory about some musicians that the more chaotic their lives are, the better their art form. I wish it wasn’t the case, but I’ve seen this example too many times in history. The best example was Marvin Gaye back in the 70s when he made the, “I Want You“ album. He was high most of the time. Gaye then made, “Hear, My Dear“ after going through his divorce with his first wife. It’s like their pain becomes our listening pleasure through their work. It’s not a surprise that for all the accolades & the career she’s built, her albums after this were never better than My Life, because My Life was made during her darkest moments; which is completely unfortunate for her….. as a person. However, as an artist, with her pain channeled through her work, My Life became a gift to us as her fans and R&B in general.
Sidenote: Was there a remix for this? You bet your ass there was! Change up the lyrics, jack “The What” beat from Biggie Smalls, sprinkle in some Mr. Cheeks, and voila! You got a sweet remix that serves everyone well.
To keep with the theme of jacking beats and songs, we follow Sean “Puffy” Combs & the Hitmen in the getaway car while they load up the shotguns and prepare to jack poor Barry White for his production. I’m telling you, there wasn’t a more blatant beat stealer in the mid 90’s than Puffy. And unlike some producers who may take a piece here or there of a song, Puffy would just take every damn thing. If the original production was a chicken thigh, he ate everything off the bone, sucked out the bone marrow, & then chewed on the bone until the bone was collected into a small pile in the corner of his plate. He never shied away from that fact either. His theory was that once you heard those beats, it would automatically grab your attention. Plus, the original production worked before, so why wouldn’t it work again, right? It was a smart way to market his artists, it was almost admirable. To me, 90’s Puffy will always be a cross between Robin Hood and Omar from the Wire. He came around in a trenchcoat & jacked 70’s & 80’s beats to provide musical pleasure to the masses. The only thing that was missing was the whistling before the start of every song.
To throw credit back to Puffy though, this particular beat and some of the other ones chosen for this album helped to make the songs timeless. When it comes to Mary, as depressed as she may have been during these times, she was also able to swing the emotion pendulum in the opposite direction. You may feel her pain in some of these songs, but you also felt her happiness, which is a hard thing to convey as a singer. Really hard. But you felt her joy in this song, and you can’t help but feel upbeat. On top of that, it was a staple on radio mixshows back then, and you can still play this song in the club right now to get the ladies feeling great.
Interludes & skits are a 90’s thing that everyone used on their albums. Usually it’s a space filler to get enough material to make an album. Most are forgettable, others like Redman and Wu-Tang were classics. Bad Boy took it to another level by introducing the world to Biggie’s stroke game, Biggie’s sex stories (about how he um, “drops waste” on a chick), and the legendary Mad Rapper. Even though Mary wasn’t a part of Bad Boy, Puffy still provided the interlude influence anyway. No one remembers what the hell Keith Murray was saying, but most people I know wonder, what the hell beat is that?!?!? A few months later, we found out with “Who Shot Ya?“, which at the time might have been one of the most ridiculous hip hop beats we ever heard. Who the hell would have thought that this beat eventually would be the start of one of the worst beefs in the history of music, a beef that led two A-level rappers (Biggie & Tupac) to die right before they reached the prime of their careers & altered many others? And again, this beat came from a R&B album?? That’s one hell of a 24-second warning shot.
Quick story: I’ll take you back to the summer of 2006. Mary J was performing at the Molson Amphitheatre here in Toronto. I was meeting some family members at the concert & was flying down the highway trying to get to the start of the concert so I wouldn’t miss out on her Be Happy performance. I ran into a crazy amount of traffic near the Lake Shore area due to construction. I started getting annoyed because even though I had no idea what the listings of her songs were gonna be, I just knew she was gonna perform that song early. After doing enough things on the road that would have gotten me pistol-whipped by police, I finally made it into the parking lot. As I met up with my family members who had my tickets, and we’re walking up the steps to the outdoor arena, I hear the long intro coming in, “DUH-DUH Dun-Nuh-Duh” over the speakers as the crowd starts going apeshit. SMH. I’m stuck in line waiting for security to tear my tickets, praying that Mary feels like a Reggae DJ at a soundclash & rewinds the song back ten times with the air horns. Nope. By the time I walked into the place, she was on to another song. Even though I enjoyed the rest of the concert, it still burns me that I missed her perform that song, especially considering that I’ve seen her live again since then & she didn’t perform Be Happy. F***.
I also wanted to see her perform that song because to be honest, it’s my favorite Mary song ever. Considering how many songs you can choose from her catalogue, that’s saying a lot. Some others on this list (“My Life” for starters) I put almost as high. Almost. You remember that old episode of Seinfeld where the guy Elaine’s dating goes into a trance and he can’t be disturbed by anyone (not even her) until his favorite song is finished? Well… okay, it’s not nearly that bad but it’s probably within the ballpark. If I’m by myself & that song comes on, there’s a pretty good chance I just zone out until the first chorus is over, I won’t even lie to you. The video itself was memorable only because of Mary standing on that rock overlooking the mountains. Unless it really was her stunt double doing it all this time and if so….. it’s understandable. What R&B singer is risking their lives for the sake of that song?
Sidenote: Was their a remix for this song? Why hell yes of course. New beat, same lyrics, throw Keith Murray in there to rap his 16 bars, and another hot remix is created. What artist is even dedicating this many remixes to their albums anymore??? Seriously? I’m asking.
“Life can be only what you make it / When you’re feelin down you should never fake it / Say what’s on your mind / And you’ll find in time / That all the negative energy / It would all cease”
The album title track is the realest song on the album. It’s relateable to every and anyone going through hard times. To keep fighting, to keep believing in yourself, and to keep believing in God to get yourself through it. When you’re younger, sometimes you don’t appreciate the positive messages as much as you would when you get older, and as an adult, it rings truer to you. I never paid as much attention to it as I probably should have admittedly, just because I was lost in the melodic production of Roy Ayers…. I mean Puffy and Chucky Thompson. However, appreciating the song now, it stands as a stance against your obstacles taking you under. In 2014, we are still fighting against the mental issues as a society, although I think there is a better awareness about it now, as opposed to the mentality we had 20 years ago in terms of sweeping those problems under the rug. On this record, you can see that advice Mary was giving to others and even herself, to basically keep fighting. In fact, I’ll let her tell it…
“I was ready to just check out,” she says now. “It was a moment—I can’t get into it—but I saw my life going and I was grabbing for it. I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ That’s when I realized that I don’t want to die. And I switched, and I started praying and crying, and my life shifted right there.”
The scary part of her situation is, not only do millions of people suffer through those same demons, but sometimes it’s the person right beside you that’s spiraling out of control and you have no idea. This is why it’s always important to communicate and to discuss your problems with someone when things are rocky. You never want to wait until it’s too late because when it gets too far, it’s almost impossible to come back from it. In some cases, you don’t. Which is why 20 years later a song like this can still register and resonate with many people.
In my last post about TLC’s CrazySexyCool, I stated that they were the most relevant group of the 90s. Well, let’s just say that Mary is the most relevant R&B artist of an entire generation. I mean, Mary J is still selling out concerts & putting out quality music right now (see Think Like a Man Too Soundtrack). She may not go triple platinum whenever her album drops anymore like she did with My Life, but she has a loyal and huge fanbase that still allows her to put out material that they will respect. My Life wasn’t just an album that helped Mary J really break out as an artist, but as a listener, you literally felt it. It’s the greatest LP she ever made. Most great artists always have that one album that is their Picasso. Marvin Gaye had it with, “What’s Going On?” and “I Want You“; Stevie Wonder had, “Songs In The Key of Life”; Michael Jackson had, “Thriller“; his sister Janet had, “Rhythm Nation“; and “Janet“, the list goes on and on. Some of those artists have that “It” album a few years into the game after they find their voice. Some others like Mary find that classic early into their careers. It’s scary to think she was only 23 when My Life was made. However, it never matters what age or at what point of your career it happens. Once it comes, you have to embrace it because very few artists ever achieve classic album status. It’s even harder to create another classic album once you get one under your belt.
Part of Mary’s legacy will be how she successfully connected Hip Hop & R&B together. The perfect example of this is when she hooked up with Method Man on the “I‘ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By“ remixes in the Spring of ’95. Both versions of that remix were instant classics, and it catapulted Method Man further into the superstar stratosphere. After that, it has become a “Mama, I made it!” moment when rappers had a chance to not only work with her, but get a feature from her on their album. This My Life period was probably the highest peak of great R&B music as a whole. As the Hip Hop & R&B worlds blended together more and more since that album, the R&B industry became a little harder, and more edgier in some ways. It lost a lot of its soul and because of it, the R&B game overall has suffered. In no way does Mary carry any blame. Even if her production had a Hip Hop feel to it (especially early in her career), you always felt her soul no matter what. If the Golden Era of R&B was a mountain, My Life was the flag that was planted at its peak. We should celebrate that feat and then realize that we could only have come down from there. My question is, When is that renaissance period of R&B coming back? Two years from now? Five? Ten? Will I even like R&B anymore by then? I’ll say this: If more artists can capture the magic that this album had, I think you’ll know what my answer will be….
Cal Cee // South Shore Ave
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