Mary J. Blige’s ‘What’s The 411’ Turns 20: Backtracking

Stephen Sears | July 27, 2012 5:30 am

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

On July 28, 1992, Mary Jane Blige rewrote pop music history with her debut album, What’s The 411, a personal manifesto translated into a multi-platinum hit. Almost swallowed by her bubble coat and low cap, she made her presence known with a rich voice that brought a new level of passion to hip hop. Soon dubbed The Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Blige channeled pain into the music that made her an instant star.

Several times platinum, 411 hit the top of the US R&B chart and #6 on the Top 200. While Blige and her collaborators knew they were speaking from (and to) a new generation, they probably never imagined how the album would cross the invisible segregated lines we place ourselves in. From homegirls in giant gold earrings to gay city boys to suburban teens trying on attitude, What’s The 411 became a sort of urban Bible.

You can hear Blige’s influence in artists like window-busting Jazmine Sullivan andLauryn Hill, among others. It seems fitting that Frank Ocean interprets a section of “Real Love” on “Super Rich Kids,” from his own deeply personal debut, Channel Orange.

Nine albums later, Blige’s presence is now more spiritual mother than angry sister. She has become symbol for the therapeutic value of self expression, always concerned with the advancement of women. She may now be wrapped in fur, but Mary J. Blige’s connection to hip hop remains strong and What’s The 411 still packs a punch.

“You Remind Me,” Blige’s debut single, hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B chart on July 25, 1992. The video hinted at her story, with Blige, in multiple hairstyles, dancing and walking around the projects with her girlfriends. What’s The 411, produced for Uptown Records by a then unknown Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, was rooted in Blige’s tense upbringing in the Schlobohm apartments in Yonkers, New York. While her personality was unpolished — and sometimes combative — her voice told a richer story, hinting that the young vocalist was inspired by legends Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan, and the east coast rap of the era.

Mary J. Blige, “You Remind Me”

In fact, 411 sprang from a creative community of young rappers, writers and producers, like Puffy, Dave “Jam” Hall, the Hailey brothers (of Jodeci) Andre Harrell and Mark Morales. Following an intro track of answering machine messages (remember those?), the album begins simply, with Blige’s voice. This was Mary in her purest tone, singing a cappella: “I can’t remember whennnn,” the opening line from the bittersweet “Reminisce.”

Mary J. Blige, “Reminisce”

The buoyant “Real Love,” the second single, was a brighter sibling and did even better in the mainstream, peaking at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. The video, with Mary outfitted in oversized sports apparel, provided what remains a lasting image of the singer who, to this day, retains a strong connection to rap.

Mary J. Blige, “Real Love”

Deeper album cuts revealed her ability to sing in multiple ranges. Like Sinead O’Connor, a contemporary of the era, Blige took her vocals right to the third rail, threatening to explode. Although she’s now known for her message of self-respect, much of What’s The 411 builds an image of traumatic love: a woman burying her own identity for a man.

She begins the smooth “Love No Limit” sweet and low — her sound almost unrecognizable from other tracks — until it winds around to series of note-scaling ad libs that seem less intended for show and more to release tension. Here was our first indicator that no one does “from the gut” better than Mary.

Mary J. Blige, “Love No Limit”

What’s The 411 closes with the rap/jazz fusion title track, but it’s “Changes I’ve Been Going Through” that delivers the record’s final word. Blige calls up her heartbreak against a delicate piano, a beat, and what would soon be a trademark: a chorus of her own multi-tracked backing vocals. It’s one of purest and saddest songs of Blige’s career. There are blues in that voice.

Even 20 years later, it just takes one spin of the Queen Of Hip Hop Soul’s debut LP to feel your own heart leap over the self-created dramas of youth. Fires still burning, anger released.

What are your first memories of Mary J. Blige’s grand coming out? Tell us in the comments below, or on Facebook and Twitter.