When someone’s so great for so long it can be easy to take their greatness for granted; after all, when you hear the extraordinary time and time again over the course of 20 years, the extraordinary can start to feel ordinary. Every so often then we need to take a step back and remember the greatness we’re looking at. In Mary J. Blige’s case, we’re looking at a woman who over the course of two decades has won four Grammys, released eight platinum projects and sold over 50 million albums. So yeah, she’s kind of …
DJBooth Album Review
Mary’s contributions have been far more than statistical though. By embedding her music with a real pain, and routinely appearing in a bandana and Timberlands, she added a realness and grit to a R&B scene dominated by picture perfect divas like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Since then her music has changed as her life has changed and she’s slowly but surely become a strong woman unafraid to embrace not only pain but joy. More importantly she’s learned to look back to her past without being consumed by it. You’ve got to be pretty confident to release a sequel 18 years after first dropping a breakthrough classic album, but Mary J Blige is nothing if not confident on My Life II.
Like most sequels, you don’t have to know the original to enjoy My Life II, but it will help if you wore out your tape of My Life and What’s the 411? back in the day. (If you just asked what a tape is, nevermind.) For example, newcomers may treat the Intro as just a quick convo between Mary and Diddy, but fans of My Life will recognize both the importance of including Diddy/Puffy, who executive produced her first two albums, and the reference to My Life’s similar but far harsher Intro. Actually, the difference between the two Intros is a perfect microcosm of My Life II’s shift away from pain and towards happiness. My Life opened with a hyper and obscenity-filled Diddy exhorting a weary Mary to get in the studio. This time a polished and professional Mary calls Diddy (she’s now taken control of her own career) and the two cordially reconnect. And if that sounds like I’m reading way too much into an Intro, you obviously didn’t have that My Life tape. It’s a similar story on the perfectly uptempo Next Level, which on one level simply features a solid Busta Rhymes verse, and on another harkens back to an equally young Busta’s appearance on What’s the 411? The more things change, the more they stay the same .
I’ll leave uncovering even more parallels to my fellow MJB nerds because despite the obvious similarities My Life II is very much its own album. Case in point, Drake, who plays the not particularly bad “bad boy” on Mr. Wrong, was eight-years-old when My Life dropped. Fellow ‘90s vet Nas, on the other hand, sounds perfectly at home on the excellent Feel Inside, and Rick Ross’ grown man luxury rap slides nicely into the lush Why. Mary’s always done some of her best work alongside rappers, her and Method Man’s You’re All I Need to Get By is hands down the best R&B/rap duet of all-time, and Mary clearly hasn’t lost her hip-hop touch on My Life II. In the context of the entire album though, rhyme-related tracks are in the minority. Love a Woman brings on Beyonce for an inter-generational diva duet that sounds so ‘90s I half expected Keith Sweat to jump in, and You Want This is the kind of dance-floor anthem more likely to get the entire family dancing at the next wedding than have groupies poppin’ it in the club. As she makes abundantly clear throughout My Life II, Mary sounds good on everything.
There may be the moments that go down in history, but greatness is actually rarely game six buzzer beaters and classic sophomore albums. Yes, Jordan was great because he won championships, but it was the meaningless game against Charlotte in February where he still dropped 25 that truly made him a cut above. Similarly, I don’t think My Life II in and of itself will go down as one of Mary’s best albums; for all its quality it just doesn’t have the focus and vision of a classic and occasionally seems to pander to the hot house/techno/club trend. But in some ways it’s more of a testament to how far she’s come, and how far she has yet to go, than any Grammy winner. Too bad no one uses 411 anymore though – now that’s a sequel I would love to hear.
Listen to More: Mary J. Blige Written by Nathan S.
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