Mary J. Blige’s ‘What’s the 411?’ Reshaped the Landscape of 1990s R&B
The early 1990s, in musical terms, are most often remembered for the emergence of grunge and alternative in rock and for the breakthrough of G-Funk and gangsta rap in hip-hop— two seismic shifts in those respective genres, epitomized by Nirvana's blockbuster 2nd album Nevermind and Dr. Dre's magnum opus The Chronic. But there's another album that was just as impactful and influential on its genre as those two juggernauts were on theirs—the debut album from Mary J. Blige. What's the 411? arrived in the summer of 1992, announcing that the new jack swing era was coming to a close as mainstream R&B shifted into another gear, one that was still hip-hop-drenched, but on more organic and soulful terms than the high-energy dancefloor anthems the new jack swing era had introduced to listeners.
At the start of 1992, TLC's Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip introduced that trio as three women unabashedly immersed in hip-hop style and culture. New jack swing stars had merged hip-hop production with R&B melodicism, but most of them had remained devoted to the style and image of traditional, sophisticated and chic R&B. Guys like Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat mostly still wore suits and dress shirts on their album covers and in videos; and even after the b-boy breakthrough of Bell Biv DeVoe in 1990, most female artists like Karyn White, En Vogue and Pebbles were still cosmopolitan in the way that they were marketed to the public. TLC's baggy shorts and backwards baseball caps set them apart from what fans expected from female stars in the genre, and broke ground for women in R&B who were more akin to BBD and Jodeci than they were Whitney Houston.
But from a musical standpoint, TLC's debut was still predominantly a new jack swing album. The production style dominated Black radio for the better part of five years and was still the rage when Mary J. Blige released her first single at the tail end of 1991. "You Remind Me" didn't really sound like new jack swing when it first appeared on the Strictly Business soundtrack, and when the song was officially released in June 1992, it was an announcement that something else was rumbling on the horizon.
She'd signed with Uptown Records in 1989 and cut her teeth singing backup--most notably on Father MC's hit single "I'll Do 4 U," which landed in the Top Twenty in 1990. Blige was paired with up-and-coming producer Sean "Puffy" Combs for her debut project, and Combs brought in songwriters/producers Prince Markie Dee, Kenny Greene, Dave Hall, Tony Dofat and Jodeci's Devante Swing to work on what would become What's the 411? By 1992, Uptown Records had an established track record of success with chart-topping artists like Al B. Sure!, Heavy D, Jodeci and Guy; and Jodeci's hit remix of "Come and Talk To Me" was an indicator of where the label's sound was heading. Released in spring 1992, the "Come and Talk To Me" remix featured a sample of The Honey Drippers' "Impeach the President" and a rap from Fat Doug. The song was arguably the first significant hit in the vein of what Combs' would soon dub "hip-hop soul" and of which Mary J. Blige would be the greatest ambassador.
What's the 411? opens with a flurry of phone messages from Puffy, Heavy D, Uptown founder Andre Harrell and CL Smooth, among others, praising the singer for her work on the project. The album kicks off proper with "Reminisce," a gutsy soul anthem laced with booming hip-hop production. Written by Greene and Hall and featuring a sample of MC Lyte's "Stop Look Listen," its melancholy and bittersweet feel would become hallmarks of Blige's early sound and another indicator that R&B was shifting gears.
But it was "Real Love" and its accompanying video that signaled to the world that Blige was a star. With the distinctive drumbeat from Audio Two's "Top Billin" carrying the piano-driven melody and Blige's throaty, impassioned vocals, "Real Love" shot to No. 7 on the Billboard 200, becoming Blige's first major pop hit. The video received major airplay on MTV and BET, with Blige's baseball jersey, combat boots and street-smart edge setting her apart from the evening dresses of En Vogue and her dead serious persona separating her from the playful sexiness of TLC.
Following its placement on Strictly Business the previous year and release as Blige's first single, Hall's "You Remind Me" gets another, more official showing here. Echoing similar sentiments as "Reminisce," it's another wistful ode to lover's past. But there isn't a sentimental or shiny veneer— this is still filtered through Mary J. Blige's achingly weary vocals and there's a pain that always feels present just beneath the surface. Things are briefly interrupted by Busta Rhymes' kinetic guest appearance on "Intro Talk," an interlude that features the then-Leaders of the New School rapper giving props to Mary while resisting the urge to go "full Busta" over this brief intermission.
Things resume with Mary's cover of the Rufus classic "Sweet Thing." Doing an exceptional job of recalling Chaka Khan's brilliant performance on the original, Mary's characteristic grit once again comes through on the song, which largely remains faithful to the original's production style. It's an indicator that, even as a product of the hip-hop generation, Blige was just as indebted to the legends of classic soul. The smoky "Love No Limit" is one of Blige's best tracks, her voice delving into a deep quasi-baritone before soaring up to some of her most evocative vocals. Another gem from Greene and Hall, it didn't reach the commercial heights of other singles but has become a standard of Mary's early years.
Blige's personal life and her art would become inextricably linked throughout her career, but the first indicator of how much her harrowing vocals were informed by real-life passion was the stellar duet "I Don't Wanna Do Anything" with her then-boyfriend K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci. Their relationship would become exceptionally rocky, cluttered with the haze of drug addiction, abuse, cheating and emotional turmoil; and you can hear the intensity even at this early stage when Blige sings that he's "told her a thousand times" that he would be hers, and still no one knows if what they have is real.
The Prince Markie Dee-produced "Slow Down" is probably the least notable song on the album, but it's not for lack of quality. The smooth track is a showcase for Blige at her most seductive, urging her lover to take his time. "My Love" is another standout single, written and produced by Hall, Greene and Heavy D. The song would be a major R&B hit for Blige and is one of the few moments on the album where she makes the pain of a breakup sound like a triumph as she walks out the door.
"Changes I've Been Going Through" is another of the album's most explicitly hip-hop-driven moments. Over the thundering percussion from Biz Markie's "Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz,"* Blige pines for lost love, singing: "Seems like we've gone through this a thousand times/Maybe I still don't have the answer/Why can't you tell me why we couldnt be together?"
That spirit of love gone wrong weighs heavily on What's the 411?, but Blige closes things with a rambunctious rap duet with Grand Puba. Playing the age-old musical game of a lothario trying and failing to impress the woman he desires, Puba is an excellent foil for MJB, as she raps as dismissively and defiantly as Lyte or Latifah (without quite having the skills, obviously) while Puba kicks his game.
What's the 411? became a major success for Blige and for Uptown Records. The album would go on to sell three million copies and set the stage for Blige as one of the biggest stars in music. Uptown Records' success would continue with Blige and Jodeci at the forefront of the emerging "hip-hop soul" movement that would also see noteworthy albums from Kenny Greene's own group Intro (Intro), Xscape (Hummin' Comin' At Cha), H-Town (Fever 4 Da Flavor) and R. Kelly (12 Play) over the next year. Blige's image would also have a profound impact on how women in R&B presented themselves, with fellow artists like SWV and Aaliyah also embracing baggy jeans, baseball caps and dark shades and channeling hip-hop swagger for their own style.
The emergence of hip-hop soul meant that new jack swing was soon to fall out of fashion. By the middle of 1993, the new jack sound had almost completely morphed into something closer to what Blige had done on ...411? and for the remainder of the 1990s, Mary J. Blige's imprint was felt on virtually every major R&B release. Jodeci's "Come and Talk To Me" remix may have been the first shot, and TLC's hip-hop aesthetic may have opened the door for like-minded female R&B artists, but it was What's the 411? that proved that hip-hop-influenced R&B could be as emotional and as soulful as any classic tunes by Chaka Khan or Anita Baker. What's the 411? slowed things down, reintroduced heavy emotion and turned Blige into a standard-bearer for virtually everyone that came after.
Within a couple of years, Puffy would further push the connections between hip-hop and R&B with his own Bad Boy Entertainment, often adding R&B polish to gritty rapper anthems. But the big bang was Blige. As such, she has a legacy as one of the most impactful artists of the last 30 years. And it all started here.
* (editor's note) the sample was originally erroneously cited as MC Shan's "The Bridge."
Watch Mary J. Blige's Video for "Love No Limit":
Watch Mary J. Blige's Video for "You Remind Me":
Watch Mary J. Blige's Video for "Reminisce":
Watch Mary J. Blige's Video for "Real Love":