Herstory 35: Mary J. Blige Bridges The Gap Between Hip-Hop and R&B
The Complicated History of Rap & Bullshit
Hip-Hop and R&B have always been a pair with a tumultuous relationship. On one hand, R&B, considerably older has had much more time to figure out its place in the world. It was a genre with its image of a typical star. On the other hand, Hip-Hop’s upbringing in its childhood years left little room for variation or experimentation. Hip-Hop was full of gritty beats, a narrow pool of subject matter, and male-dominated.
In the 1990s, both genres’ breakthroughs into the mainstream and commercial space were playing out differently, making it hard-pressed to find commonplace between the two. Suspicion turned into harsh judgment. Hip-Hop was being criticized for taking the musicality and creativity out of music, while R&B was called out for producing artists that were entirely commercially-driven and didn’t write their own material. The tension sparked RZA (on the Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever) to deliver a two-minute PSA about the state of Hip-Hop and R&B (or as it's referred to: “Rap & Bullshit”):
The music industry devised a solution for this divide between its artists: rap/sung collaboration. They uncovered an amicable medium between the two genres that were mutually beneficial. For Hip-Hop, it gave the featured rappers more attention in the growing class of new artists hitting the industry. For R&B, it maintained relevancy for the singers against the rapid growth of hip-hop as an emerging and commercially successful genre. These one-off collaborations took on a life of their own throughout the 1990s. Pairings like Mariah Carey & Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Mya & Silkk The Shocker, and Destiny’s Child & Wyclef Jean created unexpected but revered tracks:
The irony lies in full display as Method Man, that one of the Wu-Tang Clan members, collaborated to create this same type of rap/sung collaboration:
Now while this may have seemed like an unprecedented approach to the unassuming, there is always a missing piece in the narrative. There had already been a space where Hip-Hop merged with R&B. Here enters Mary J. Blige, an artist that through her 25+ year career, has an immense influence on the state of the music industry through to the new millennium.
Caught Up In The Rapture
Mary Jane Blige was born on January 11, 1971, in New York, to parents Cora and Thomas Blige. Brought up in The Bronx and Savannah, Georgia, her family settled in Yonkers in her later childhood. Blige has always been open about her upbringing in New York. Having experienced immense trauma (as both a witness to experiences in her poor neighborhood and the victim of sexual harassment), she used sex, drugs, and alcohol as an escape. Mary J. Blige’s relationship with music began in the Georgia years singing in local churches at a young age.
In 1988, visiting the Galleria Mall with her cousin, Mary was convinced to record herself at one of the karaoke machines. Having had Anita Baker in heavy rotation, Mary recorded her own version of Baker’s song “Caught Up In The Rapture”.
Through a long series of connections, the cover tape was eventually passed on to CEO of Uptown Records, Andre Harrell. Within the next few weeks, Andre signed Mary at the age of 18, becoming the youngest womxn artist to be signed to the label. Recognizing that Mary was different from the other acts that the label had worked with, there hadn’t been an idea of how to craft her style or music. They saw a womxn that conflicted with their image of what a singer’s background should look like. Mary had been told that she would mostly be offering support to local acts until Sean Combs (at the time a 19-year-old intern) started working with Blige on her own material. The result of that work came in the form of her debut album, What’s the 411?, a mix of equal parts Hip-Hop and R&B in a way that hadn’t been broadcast before it. The rapid success of What’s the 411? earned Mary the nickname of: “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul”.
This reign through the 1990s called Mary up to collaborate with the biggest key players in the music industry. You couldn’t listen to a high profile Hip-Hop album without hearing Mary J. Blige on the hook. Tapped by the likes of Missy Elliott, Nas, and Jay-Z; they recognized the blend of styles and rare ability that could elevate a single.
Combs and Blige worked on her sophomore album, My Life, which was used as a much more personal space for Mary to express her feelings and experiences. This continued in successive albums like No More Drama and The Breakthrough:
The Mary J. Blige through her later works may seem distant from her What’s the 411? era, but that’s what needs to be reframed as genuine growth. She was able to work her way through her struggles to get to the thoughtful and (arguably) more expressive artist she continues to be.
“It’s not just songs and glamour. It’s sweat, blood, broken toes, and mistakes…it’s life.”
There’s Something About Mary
Over the course of 13 albums, Mary J. Blige has won 79 awards (including those from the Grammys, American Music, and Billboard Awards). This in line with the cultural and industry influence has created a presence that has not waned since her debut in 1992.
The rap/sung collaboration was a strategy that almost exclusively positioned men in the roles of the rapper and womxn in the role of the singer. Labels never thought to consider both elements could culminate in one person. Mary J. Blige is one of the rare artists to thrive in musical spaces that have always drawn very distinct lines. Blige has traversed through R&B, Hip-Hop, Gospel, and Pop genres without being limited or bound by having to choose one.
It’s difficult to pin down all of the hits that Blige has, but take a listen to a small set of her works:
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series — we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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