Happy 25th Anniversary to Mary J. Blige’s debut album What’s the 411?, originally released July 28, 1992.
One of the major characteristics of ‘80s babies, particularly when they were in their teens and twenties, was the almost constant need to define and distinguish themselves. This generation spent its early youth in the previous decade of the ‘70s, immersed in the atmosphere where Funk, Soul, and Disco artists like Parliament-Funkadelic, Rufus, and Chic ruled the airwaves and provided the soundtrack to parties that lasted for days at a time. By the time of their coming-of-age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a unique style of dress, lyrical articulation, and attitude had developed, that not only stood out from their parents’ generation, but also their older siblings who invented a New Jack Swing R&B sub-genre just a few years earlier.
1992 marked a year when a new tone was set over the R&B landscape, beginning with R. Kelly and Public Announcement’s January debut release Born into the 90’s. R. Kelly’s penmanship seemed to slow the pace from the more up-tempo, party jams of the late ‘80s that continued into 1990 through 1991, and instead focused more squarely on the lyrical content, with the production serving as more of the backdrop.
The very next month saw the release of the Georgia based trio TLC’s debut long player Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip, which showcased a group whose look and sound outright defied all convention. Together, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, and the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes helped further merge the musical first cousins of hip-hop and R&B, serving as a feminine counterpart to the New Edition offshoot Bell Biv DeVoe.
Along with En Vogue’s sophomore effort Funky Divas, which upon its release in March 1992 created a whole new blueprint for sexiness in soul music, Born into the 90’s and Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip exemplified just how exciting of a time it was for mainstream R&B music. And that was just in the first half of the year.
In a year of mega hits by promising new artists, with genre-redefining records like “Honey Love” and “Baby, Baby, Baby,” the sound of a new decade appeared to be well on its way. But until July arrived, the phenomenon lacked what had solidified every previous generation of major soul movements: a leading lady.
Rapidly gaining everyone’s attention heading into the summer of 1992 was a then 21-year-old Mary J. Blige. Signed to Uptown Records, which was quickly becoming Generation X’s Motown, her debut single “You Remind Me” immediately captured the attention of fans and critics alike, amassing enough TV and radio support to generate sizable buzz for her forthcoming freshman album. Blige’s debut LP What’s the 411? was overseen by the label’s ambitious A&R executive Sean Combs, who had recently overseen Jodeci’s big breakthrough.
Exceeding all expectations and driving her fledgling career even higher into the ascendant, Blige hit a home run with the album’s second single “Real Love.” Co-written and produced by the Fat Boys’ Prince Markie Dee, the sped-up baseline of Audio Two’s “Top Billin” provided the perfect head-nodding cadence for Blige’s soulful exploration of her Mr. Right.
As her success skyrocketed on the strength of her first two singles, every inner city girl under 25 began the process of turning into Mary J., with the “do it yourself kit” that included nose piercing, hair dye, baseball jersey, and snap-back Starter hat. Generation X had now found their voice, one profoundly influenced by the attitudes and styles of hip-hop culture. Indeed, as with the tradition of Aretha Franklin in the early ‘70s and Chaka Khan later in the decade, Blige began to grow into the archetype of her generation.
It was amidst this groundswell of support and expansion of her fan base that Mary released her third offering “Reminisce.” The song followed what seemed to be Combs’ formula for the Yonkers, NY songstress, by revolving around another ‘80s hip-hop sample, this time from Audio Two’s close associate and femcee rhyme titan MC Lyte’s “Stop, Look, and Listen.”
As arguably the first songstress to fully embody hip-hop culture, which coincidently was born just a few miles south of her own stomping grounds, sampling and recreating the soul music she was raised on during her adolescence was another major part of her repertoire. Blige’s savory rendition of “Sweet Thing” helped provide depth to her groundbreaking album, and appeared to be a sincere homage to the Queen of Funk, Chaka Khan, who released the original version 17 years earlier as a member of the legendary band Rufus. Released a month after “Sweet Thing” in May 1993, What’s the 411?’s final single was the emotional love ballad “Love No Limit,” which reinforced Blige’s versatility and ability to deliver in the more traditional R&B format.
What’s the 411? proved to be an elite album in a very strong year for R&B, while serving as the catalyst for Blige, who would go on to be rightfully dubbed the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Under the direction of future mogul Sean Combs, Mary would create her own lane within the industry, frequently collaborating with prominent hip-hop acts, such as Grand Puba (who also contributed to What’s the 411?’s title track), Busta Rhymes (who appeared on the album's "Intro Talk"), Smif-N-Wessun, and helping to showcase the Notorious B.I.G. Her trademark sound and heavy demand for hip-hop remixes inspired a full length follow up to 411, entitled What’s the 411? Remix, released at the end of 1993.
In the years that have passed, What’s the 411? has aged better than most—if not all—of its contemporaries, while offering the inspiration and template for every R&B artist who has collaborated with a rapper since. Blige took something that should have been obvious to be a binary compound, infused it, delivered it to the masses, and became one of the greatest cultural ambassadors in the history of the music industry in the process.
As a music lover born just a few years shy of being included in Generation X, it’s hard to imagine summertime cookouts, club nights, and parties without “Real Love” or “Reminisce.” Luckily, when I was just a shorty, we had a Queen drop in to give us all the 411.