Often referred to as the “Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul,” no one can ever argue Mary J. Blige’s accomplishments as an artist. Since her first album, What’s the 411? (1992), Mary’s multi-platinum eight times over and hauled in multiple Grammys, too. With 10 studio albums listed to her name, anyone would be hard-pressed to find another artist – male or female – who’s had more success making the most memorable of ballads and jams.
And, we were hard-pressed narrowing those songs down to 10. But, that’s what we do here with The Primer series. We break the discographies down to the last compound and highlight a few of the best songs that are essential to these music legends. As always, they’re not definitive lists, just starting points to help everybody build their own playlist.
Now, we present to your Her Majesty.
1. “Real Love”
Mary definitely didn’t let Milk D and Gizmo down with this game-changer of a song. The second single from What’s The 411, “Real Love” would go on to become the album’s biggest hit, reaching the Top 10 on the Hot 100 Charts. Mary’s sincere vocals about longing for a genuine lover to call her own, not to mention the infectious flip of Audio Two’s “Top Billin’,” solidified the street cred she earned with her debut single “You Remind Me.” Taking a page from Uptown heavyweight DJ Ron G, MJB brought Hip-Hop soul to the Billboard charts and the game has never been the same.
2. “Love No Limit”
The last song recorded for her debut, “Love No Limit” served as a departure from the album’s overall Hip-Hop heavy sound, with producer Dave Hall infusing a jazzy feel to the track. Though Puffy and the track’s creators were a little lukewarm on the song’s potential, it eventually became a Top 5 R&B hit and a signature track in Mary’s catalog. The music video also remains a personal favorite. Black and white never fit so well.
3. “Be Happy”
Following the mega success of her triple platinum debut, Mary recorded what would become her magnum opus in the musical emotional rollercoaster My Life. Almost entirely produced by Chucky Thompson and Puff Daddy, the album was a creative leap for Blige, who co-wrote several songs. The lead single “Be Happy” displayed Blige’s newfound depth with soul-searching lyrics (“How can I love somebody else, if I can’t love myself enough to know/when it’s time, time to let go.”) that were sung with the emotion only one going through a similar situation could evoke. Success is great, but all Mary wanted was happiness.
4. “My Life”
Despite not being promoted as a single outside of the UK and having no accompanying music video, My Life‘s title track is now considered the one of the best songs on an album many deem to be Mary’s artistic pinnacle. Mary co-wrote the track and captured the pain resulting from substance abuse and a tumultuous relationship with Jodeci frontman, K-Ci Hailey. All respect to Roy Ayers, but Mary may have one-upped him with this one, as pain hasn’t sounded as sweet to the ears after the release of this classic.
5. “Not Gon’ Cry”
R. Kelly said it best: When a woman’s fed up, it ain’t nothing you can do about it. Recorded for the “Waiting To Exhale” soundtrack and written and produced by Babyface, the song played on the storyline of Angela Bassett’s character Bernadine from the film, but could also be attributed to Blige’s own often rocky love life. This fuck you to all no good men would go on to become Blige’s biggest hit up until that point, reaching number one and two on the R&B and pop charts respectively. The song also netted her the third Grammy nomination of her career.
6. “I Can Love You”
Mary’s third long-player Share My World would be her first without Puffy’s magic touch, but was anything but a disappointment. Choosing to shift her sound more towards contemporary R&B, she still proved capable of creating undeniable street bangers with the project’s second single “I Can Love You.” One of producer Rodney Jerkins’ earliest hits, the song sees Mary promoting OPP on top of a track sampling Lil Kim’s “Queen Bitch.” The Queen Bee herself makes an appearance, dropping one of the most memorable guest verses of her career.
7. “7 Days”
One of the more sensual cuts in her catalog, “7 Days” is definitely not for the kiddies. Featured on Share My World, the song has Mary playing a game of truth or dare with a friend that eventually turns to a game of hide and go get it. Mary feels conflicted in her emotions, going through a “7 Day” cycle of lust, second thoughts, and more lust. Now, that’s a hell of a week.
8. “Your Child”
Despite the constant turbulence in her personal life, MJB’s success on the charts continued with her fourth album Mary. Though powered by the lead single and classic in its own right “All That I Can Say” (written by Lauryn Hill), “Your Child,” a shot fired at deadbeat dads, would prove to be a gem as well. Centered around a woman who’s approached by her lover’s mistress with claims of him fathering her child, the song sees Mary showing sympathy for the woman’s situation, while facing the reality of her man’s infidelity. A dark horse hit upon its initial release, “Your Child” became an anthem for women on both sides of this real life circumstance and one of the records that continues to stick with fans.
9. “Family Affair”
At peace within herself and finally overcoming her demons, No More Drama served as a personal victory lap for MJB. And what better way to celebrate than bringing in loved ones and friends for a “Family Affair?” Produced by Dr. Dre, the vibe of the track is triumphant and features those booming drums we’ve come to love from the good doctor. The upbeat track gives you no choice but to get your two-step on at the least. And while we still don’t quite know what a “dancerie” is, what we do know is if you don’t like this track, you may have a little “hateration” in your blood.
10. “Be Without You”
A decade plus into her career, MJB released one of her most commercially successful singles in the The Breakthrough cut “Be Without You”. Written by the dream team of Johnta Austin, Bryan Michael Cox, and Jason Perry, the song sees Blige, inspired by her real life union to husband Kendu Isaacs, proclaiming her love for her significant other. The second most successful single in the history of the R&B charts, spending 15 weeks at number one on the pop charts, and snagging two Grammy awards, “Be Without You” proved that the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul is nowhere near done. And like wine, her music has gotten finer with time.