Album Review : Mary J Blige’s ‘My Life II, The Journey Continues (Act 1)’

BOW DOWN.  THE QUEEN IS BACK.

Have your faves been in the game for over 20 years? Have they been ranked by Billboard Magazine as THE most successful female R’n’B vocalist of the past 25 years? Have they charted 65 singles on the Billboard R’n’B Singles Chart? Have they had ALL 10 of their studio albums enter the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, four of which have reached # 1 and three at # 2? Oh but they have not.

9-time Grammy winner and R’n’B/Soul royalty Mary J Blige is undoubtedly one of the most influential artists in the history of contemporary music, and is also THE pin-up girl of courage. With the release of her 10th studio album, ‘My Life Pt II, The Journey Continues (Act 1)’ , Mary justifies her position as the Supreme Queen Of Hip-Hop/Soul yet again.

Now there would not have been a sequel had there not been a ‘My Life’ album in the first place right? (duh).

So what’s the deal with the original ‘My Life’ album you ask? Nothing much, except for the fact that the album has been hailed by fans and critics alike as one of the greatest albums of ALL time. Time magazine ranks ‘My Life’ as one of the Top 100 albums of all time, while Rolling Stone places it as one of the Top 500 albums of all time. Personally, ‘My Life’ was and still is one of my fave albums EVER. It’s one of those albums that I add to my playlist whenever I’m sick to the point of barfing bile at the music being churned out at a sickening pace these days (I’m growing old, I know), and it reminds me of the rawness and the classic sound of the 90’s that Mary pioneered by fusing Hip-Hop and Soul.

In 1992, Mary J Blige had already established herself as a force to be reckoned with after the release of her thoroughly stunning début album ‘What’s The 411?’. The raw vocals, the grooves, the pain..that album was an effin’ masterpiece! But when Mary bared her tortured soul in her sophomore effort, 1994’s ‘My Life’, she left very little doubt that she was here to stay, and to rule. Co-produced by Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, ‘My Life’ was literally ground-breaking, a defiant testimony of a hopelessly vulnerable woman facing a lone battle with drugs, alcoholism, depression and abuse (with then boyfriend K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci), an introspective masterpiece that catapulted her to super-stardom.

Gritty and dark, with a palpable searing pain being the central theme of the album, ‘My Life’ resonated with fans and music lovers worldwide, and peaked at # 1 on the Billboard R’n’B Albums Chart for a whopping 8 consecutive weeks, and peaked at # 7 on the Billboard 200, selling over 3 million copies in the US alone, becoming her second consecutive album to reach the top 10 and to be certified triple platinum, after ‘What’s The 411?’.

‘My Life’ was an album that you needed to acquire a taste to, primarily cuz of its raw and edgy sound. Back in the day, Mary pioneered the new sound of Hip-Hop/Soul that catered to urban radio with ample street credibility, as well as respect from the classes, and at first listen the singles would not sound too radio friendly. But it was just a matter of time when ‘Be Happy’, ‘You Bring Me Joy’, the Rose Royce cover ‘I’m Goin’ Down’, and ‘Mary Jane (All Night Long)’ became classics and entered the Billboard Hot 100, with 3 of them becoming Top 40 hits.

Now I belong to the school of thought that a classic album should NEVER be touched or recreated. But then I also belong to the school of thought that believes that Mary J Blige can do no wrong.

‘My Life II’ was THE most highly anticipated album for me this year, and being a Mary fanatic, I was overjoyed and anxious at the same time regarding what she would unleash. Before listening to the new album, I had to give the original ‘My Life’ a listen again, cuz it’s only fair that the sequel be compared to the original. Even today, everything about that album is a classic, from Puff Daddy and Mary’s chilling intro, to Mary getting into the groove with one of the biggest hits from the album ‘Mary Jane (All Night Long)’, to the heart-wrenching vulnerability of the non-single songs like ‘No One Else’, ‘I Love You’ and ‘My Life’, where Mary laments ‘If you looked in my life, and see what I’ve seen..’.

The verdict? ‘My Life II’ is a TOTALLY worthy sequel to the original ‘My Life’, and it’s a celebration of Mary’s journey from the Bronx to becoming one of the greatest entertainers of our time, rather than a throwback to her dark days of depression. It’s more about being in power than being the victim. And it definitely chronicles Mary’s maturation as a vocalist over a period of 2 decades. The original album had Mary sounding completely harsh, unrestrained and raw, and she occasionally overdid the vocal acrobatics. A similar streak was seen in her follow-up albums ‘Share My World’ (1997 – her first Billboard # 1 Album), ‘Mary’ (1999) the impeccable ‘No More Drama’ (2001) and ‘Love and Life’ (2003).

On 2005’s ‘The Breakthrough’, the harshness seemed to have completely disappeared, replaced by a mature, restrained and soulful boom to her voice, resulting in her biggest selling album globally. And that same maturity has been persistent in Mary’s albums after that, including ‘My Life II’. And most importantly, the album still keeps it real like the original album did. No dilution at all.

The album as a whole begins with a brilliant throwback to her earlier sound which covers the first half of the album before smoothly transitioning to slower mid-tempo grooves, and then finally on to the more mature sound Mary has adopted of late.

Like the original album, the intro to the sequel features a phone conversation between collaborator and friend Sean Puff-Daddy/Diddy Combs and Mary, with Combs giving Mary the go-ahead to create a sequel to the original album. After which ‘My Life II’ launches into one of the strongest tracks of the album ‘Feels Inside’ featuring Nas, a thoroughly amazing throwback to the original sound of Mary. This one will have you nodding your head, and it sounds like an edgier version of Mary’s ‘Family Affair’. Potential next single here.

The same streak continues with the next single ‘Midnight Drive’ in which Mary unleashes her rapper alter-ego Brook Lynn.

Busta Rhymes appears on the 3rd track ‘Next Level’ produced by Danja and this one’s all old-school.

Like the original, the sequel has a great remake, and this time it’s none other than Mary’s idol Chaka Khan’s perennial classic ‘Ain’t Nobody’. The Rodney Jerkins produced remake has a dance-floor ready vibe to it with its pyro and electronica sounds. And yet Mary retains the flavor of the original.

Next up is the first single from the album ’25-8′, and this one’s vintage Mary sampling the late Heavy D’s ‘Now That We Found Love’ . This could have easily been taken from the original ‘My Life’ album, with smoother vocals.

The edgy Hip-Hop sound on the first part of the album slows down and transitions into a mellower soulful sound with the stand-out track ‘No Condition’, which finds Mary back in familiar territory, speaking about heartbreak. And this time though, Mary has learnt to let go as she soulfully croons ‘I’m In No Condition To Love You’, unlike the first album, where she held on to her heartbreak and lamented ‘I’m Goin’ Down’. It’s from here that the entire album delves into brilliance.

Drake guests on the next track ‘Mr Wrong’, and this one sounds a tad bit like Kelly Rowland’s ‘Motivation’. Soulful either way.

One of the biggest highlights of the album is the duet ‘Love A Woman’ with Beyoncé, and this track is everything that R’n’B/Soul of the 90’s epitomized. Both the divas unleash their powerhouse vocals, and sound amazingly complimentary while keeping it restrained enough to not outdo the other, while giving a lesson about loving women right. This one’s EPIC. Period. Especially the bridge when their vocals reach a crescendo ‘Kiss her real slow and get down and blow her mind..Gotta take your time’. May-jah CHILLS.

And the chills continue on the next track as well, the Tricky Stewart-produced and absolutely haunting ‘Empty Prayers’, where you find Mary at her vulnerable best, sounding so thoroughly amazing that you might just wanna shed a few tears.

And you left me on my knees 
You just walked out the door 
You didn’t even have the decency to intervene while I was begging God for 
You to love me

As if the last 2 tracks weren’t enough, Mary S-L-A-Y-S with her surprisingly restrained vocals in yet another stand-out track, the lush  ‘Someone To Love You’. Compare this track to anything that Mary’s done in the past ‘My Life’ album, and you’ll see your jaw drop listening to the amazing vocal and artistic growth this woman has displayed over a period of 2 decades.

The final track couldn’t have been a better choice to conclude the album with, and it encompasses everything that Mary’s incredible 20 year journey is all about. ‘The Living Proof’ is also present on the soundtrack of ‘The Help’, and it sums up all the pain, all the tears, all the highs and lows, and is a triumphant testimony with which she seals the second leg of her staggeringly amazing journey.

‘Nothing about my life has been easy
But nothing is gonna keep me down
Cause I know a lot more today
Than I knew yesterday
So I am ready to carry on’

I’ve been a part of a worldwide legion of fans that have grown up listening to Mary J Blige. I, like a million others, have been inspired by her strength and courage, and have turned to her music when it came to tackling issues like heartaches, betrayals and whole lotta things about life in general. Especially when you’re drowning, Mary’s music is something that you need to help you to resurface. She’s always been brutally honest, and has ALWAYS been the real deal.

Some of her albums have made it to the list of my favorite albums of all time, notably 2001’s ‘No More Drama’, 1997’s ‘Share My World’, 2005’s ‘The Breakthrough’ and of course the 1994 classic ‘My Life’. What’s incredible about her is the fact that Mary’s never been afraid to show her scars, and being on this incredible journey with her has only taught me to be happy the way I am, flaws and all.

‘My Life II, The Journey Continues (Act 1)’is a perfectly worthy sequel to it’s predecessor, and it’s a triumphant testimony of Mary J Blige’s evolution as an artist. With this album, the Queen Of Hip-Hop/Soul cements her position as one of the most significant and influential artists of all time.

HAIL QUEEN MARY!!