It was only 26 years ago that the queen of hip-hop/soul released her breakthrough album My Life to the world. Unlike the other works of Mary J. Blige, which can be generally categorized as danceable and upbeat, My Life is teeming with soul and melancholy, a musical manifestation of Blige’s battle with depression and an abusive relationship. In her 2020 rerelease, My Life (Deluxe/Commentary Edition), Blige mingles the details of her creative process with the songs themselves. The album itself is nearly two hours of listening to Blige’s bittersweet nostalgia and is an auditory trip back in time, even for those of us who weren’t alive to experience the songs the first time around in ’94.
What’s notable about the album is its inclusion of strategic interludes. While My Life starts with the flirty tunes of “Mary Jane (All Night Long)” and “You Bring Me Joy,” Blige is able to quickly shift the plot of her album from mindless romanticism to desperate longing with the soulful “Marvin Interlude.” Later, the sounds of a cassette player can be heard in the “K. Murray Interlude,” reminding the listener to sharpen their ears for the upcoming title track: Blige’s most personal song, “My Life.”
The new commentary tracks provide endearing explanations for these choices — Blige laughs as she recounts how her upbeat songs are about her efforts not to “fuss and fight” and instead to distract herself from the turmoil in her relationship. On the other hand, she mentions in the commentary for “My Life” how her intent was to give her listeners the furthest glimpse she could into the “hell” she was living with.
In fact, the perfection of “My Life” being the title track is that it is the most poignant and pivotal song on the album. Blige’s smooth musicality makes the track therapeutic for both her and the listener. From that song on, the album dives fully into the blues. No tracks stand out quite as much as Blige’s impassioned Rose Royce cover, “I’m Goin’ Down.” Her vibrant commentary for the track backs it up as a standout for the album; she recounts a vivid memory of her listening to the song in the car after school, saying that “even as a kid” she was singing it like she was a “40-year-old woman,” and “it made (her) feel everything.”
The following songs, although more colorless in comparison, are more appreciable in light of the commentary tracks. One of Blige’s favorite songs, “Mary’s Joint,” is only a successful jam when the listener is reminded of Blige’s opinion on it in the spoken track. Otherwise, its lackluster lyricism (“I love you so, I can’t let go”) would deny it of its status as a neo soul classic. Similarly, while “Be With You” has no memorable lyrics (“I just wanna be with you, there’s nothing else I’d rather do” is the repeated chorus), Blige’s comments on the freestyle aspect of those lyrics makes the song seem more raw and appreciable in retrospect.
When once it was possible to auditorily skim her work, the deluxe album today fastens the listener tightly in their seatbelt on the informational tour of the album. Indeed, the heavy use of sampling throughout the album would be easily forgotten to a listener with no reference of Blige’s influences, such as Curtis Mayfield or Barry White, without the commentary tracks. The fusion of these upbeat samples with Blige’s “begging” lyrics proves Blige’s summary of her work to be true: “As dark as it is,” she says in one of the tracks, it’s “so much fun (listening to) it.”
With each commentary track lasting about two minutes each, this new album feels more interlude than music. However, if one has the time and patience to hear out the ’90s queen for a long sitting, they will leave with a deeper regard for even her most filler tracks, and perhaps even leave with a new anthem to listen to during their own tribulations.
Contact Nurcan Sumbul at [email protected].