Celebrating the 25th anniversary of her searing 1994 album My Life with thousands in the Hollywood Bowl singing along to her every word, Mary J. Blige saves the final words for her ride-or-die fans. To the ones who have uplifted her from the beginning, and who, like their girl Mary, have been “tried, tested, and proven,” she repeatedly proclaims “Thank you.”
The onstage moment, a moving summation of Blige’s mix of authenticity and showmanship, caps off Amazon’s Mary J. Blige’s My Life. Another heartfelt thank you to fans of the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, the documentary, directed by Oscar-winner Vanessa Roth, should also speak to those who only discovered Blige later in her career, gaily exhorting the world to “get it crunk up on, up in this dancery.”
True Mary heads know that years before she declared “No More Drama,” Blige had lived several lifetimes of pain and trauma, eventually emerging from the Schlobohm projects in Yonkers with her trailblazing 1992 album What’s the 411? A revolutionary blend of hip-hop and R&B, the award-winning LP, featuring hits “You Remind Me” and “Real Love,” vaulted Blige to superstardom practically overnight.
Describing herself in the film as still an insecure girl at the time, she wasn’t prepared for the instant fame and outsized expectations. Her meteoric rise also came as a shock to her family, according to sister LaTonya, a wonderful storyteller in the film, along with the architects of What’s the 411?, recently departed music industry mogul Andre Harrell and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.
Blige credits Combs as the person in her corner who convinced her of her own vast potential. His belief in her, and insistence that she should channel her dizzying swirl of emotions into writing songs, helped her believe that she was artist enough to create an album like My Life.
A raw expression of loneliness and heartache, Blige’s sophomore LP solidified the intense connection between her and the audience that she continues to reach with her music and performances. Chronicling the making of My Life, Blige, Combs, album producer Chucky Thompson, and co-songwriter Big Bub share, nearly song-by-song, their creative process for crafting hits like the title track and “Be Happy.”
Writing and recording My Life during a stark period of depression, and alcohol and drug abuse, Blige also was navigating a notoriously toxic romance with fellow R&B star K-Ci Hailey of platinum-selling singing group Jodeci. Director Roth evokes the period powerfully, employing concert footage, home movies, interviews, painterly animation, and archival video shot in the recording studio. In one scene, we watch as Mary today watches herself at 21, being interviewed on TV by hosts who make her watch a clip of K-Ci blowing off their rumored engagement. Layers upon layers of ’90s pop culture spiral in a gotcha moment that leaves young Mary feeling “disgusted.”
Older and wiser Mary explains that she had no idea then that she was even capable of becoming the woman she is now, a nine-time Grammy winner and two-time Oscar nominee who’s sold over 50 million albums in the U.S. alone. Her struggle towards self-belief is a large part of the message she shares with her fans, especially those who are Black women and/or LGBTQ+, who, as evidenced by the many interactions shown here, relate to her on something like a spiritual level. This one’s for them, a generous look inside a brilliant performer’s pain and process, set to the beat and melody of Mary’s hip-hop soul.
Mary J. Blige’s My Life is available for streaming starting on Friday, June 25 on Prime Video. Visit www.amazon.com.
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