20 Mary Jane (All Night Long) (1995)
Mary Jane is a reworking of Mary Jane Girls’ fantastic 1983 hit All Night Long. It is hard to go wrong with source material as good as that, but this is a supremely classy take: a languorous vocal, luscious samples from Teddy Pendergrass’s Close the Door and a killer remix featuring LL Cool J.
19 Love @ 1st Sight (2003)
This fruitfully reanimated the Blige and Method Man partnership nearly a decade after I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By. Over a tough, insistent groove, she ponders the mysteries of immediate physical attraction, while he sounds like the last person you would want to be immediately attracted to: “You find me just ’bout everywhere the poontang go.”
18 Deep Inside (1999)
Backed by high-drama Bennie and the Jets piano, Deep Inside offers a similar I’m-still-the-same message to Jennifer Lopez’s Jenny from the Block, but Blige’s performance is so racked, the lyrics so frank – “I don’t have a lot of friends … Is it cash they see when they look at me?” – that it feels like genuine soul-baring.
17 Be Happy (1994)
Blige’s second album, My Life, was confessional and raw, dealing with addiction, abuse and mental health. Its Curtis Mayfield-sampling closer is ostensibly upbeat and dancefloor-focused, but there is a powerful tension there: the lyrics are, at best, cautiously optimistic; the melody of the hook is overcast and brooding.
16 Take Me As I Am (2005)
By the time of 2005’s The Breakthrough, Blige was a master at alchemising her troubles into potent material. Take Me As I Am is simultaneously laid-back (the music is based on Lonnie Liston Smith’s Garden of Peace) and steely; the beat is harder than you might expect from a ballad, the lyrics defiant.
15 Share My World (1997)
The title track of Blige’s third album – a noticeably lighter affair than its predecessor – boasts a fabulous Rodney Jerkins production in which disco-era syndrums ricochet around glossy synths, the smooth mood disrupted by the noticeable ache in Blige’s voice. It is not a love song so much as a song pleading for love.
14 You Remind Me (1991)
The influential hybrid “hip-hop soul” sound of Blige’s debut album, What’s The 411?, in a nutshell. Beats swiped from an old Biz Markie track, a beautifully controlled but emotive vocal, a nod to old soul in its chorus borrowed from Patrice Rushen: musical traditions rearranged and reconfigured into something new.
13 Love Is All We Need (1997)
A booming, dense production by Jam & Lewis, a feature from Nas in his imperial phase – his guest verse is genuinely imaginative – a killer hook, Blige on commanding form. Even here, delivering a buoyant paean to lasting romance, there is a raw power and attitude to her voice that sets her apart.
12 Enough Cryin (2006)
The video for Enough Cryin suggests the song is rooted in memories of Blige’s turbulent relationship with the Jodeci vocalist K-Ci. Whatever the inspiration, it is a ferocious, thrilling outpouring of anger and bitterness, complete with an appearance by Blige’s rapping alter ego Brook Lynn: “Shoulda Marc Jacob Fe Fe bagged me when you had me.”
11 U + Me (Love Lesson) (2017)
Blige’s albums got spottier as the millennium wore on – there was a Christmas collection and collaborations with Disclosure and Sam Smith – but 2017’s Strength of a Woman boasted a no-further-questions classic in U + Me, a heartbroken ballad on which the hazy, stoned summer afternoon sound only emphasised the power of her voice.
10 All That I Can Say (1999)
Blige appeared on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’s I Used to Love Him and here Hill returns the favour, writing and producing the first single from 1999’s Mary, a glorious homage to early 70s Stevie Wonder. Beautifully understated until 2min 40sec, where Blige’s multitracked vocals erupt.
9 Not Gon’ Cry (1996)
A divorce drama set to slow-motion beats and subtle fragments of psychedelic guitar, Not Gon’ Cry’s lyrics are more despondent than the title suggests – “11 years out of my life / Besides the kids, I have nothing to show” – but Blige injects just enough steel into them to suggest the protagonist will be OK.
8 My Life (1994)
“I grew up on Roy Ayers,” explained Blige after My Life transformed Ayers’ blissful Everbody Loves the Sunshine into a sombre, affecting meditation on surviving her tough upbringing and her struggles with depression and drug addiction: “Down and out, crying every day.”
7 Just Fine (2007)
Blige in gleeful party-starting mode, complete with opening get-on-the-dancefloor monologue. Just Fine’s rhythm track was apparently inspired by Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough. Its sparse-but-urgent sound and Blige’s exuberance – “No time for mopin’ around, are you kidding?” – are both completely irresistible.
6 No More Drama (2001)
A visceral, cathartic howl of a song, wrapped up in a superb soap-opera-theme-sampling Jam & Lewis production. Its climax is breathtaking; her extraordinary, rain-lashed reading of the song at Glastonbury in 2015 remains one of the greatest performances in the festival’s history.
5 I Can Love You (1997)
Relegated to a B-side in the UK, I Can Love You’s collaboration between Blige and Lil’ Kim – then at the peak of her fame – is terrific. The strings swirl and sigh, Blige brings the unrequited heartbreak, Lil’ Kim takes a more straightforward approach to luring the object of her affections away from his relationship.
4 Be Without You (2005)
According to Billboard, Be Without You is the most successful R&B/hip-hop song of all time. That presumably depends on how you define “R&B/hip-hop”, but there is no doubt it is a wonderful song: luscious, dramatic, with Blige bringing her patent edge. It was a hit in the UK thanks to a pop-house remix.
3 Everything (1997)
Of all the Blige tracks that openly – but respectfully – plunder soul music’s past for inspiration, Everything’s revising of the Stylistics’ You Are Everything might be the most perfectly turned. The production plays on the song’s familiarity while giving Blige the space to turn it into something of her own.
2 Real Love (remix) (1992)
Real Love’s hip-hop remix is always going to be remembered as the track that introduced the world to the Notorious BIG, but his superb guest verse shouldn’t overshadow the greatness of the song itself – its sample of Betty Wright’s Clean Up Woman bouncing joyously – or of Blige’s performance.
1 Family Affair (2001)
On which an artist most closely associated with exploring heartbreak and adversity and a producer most associated with hip-hop make one of the all-time great pop-R&B party bangers. Everything about Family Affair is perfection: Dr Dre’s simple but devastatingly effective production (piano riff, staccato strings, a beat – that’s it); Blige’s economical, understated vocal; the fact that every melody line sounds like a hook. Has pop produced a more striking clarion call to forget-your-troubles dancefloor abandon than: “Don’t need no hateration, holleration in this dancery,” a line that appears to coin three words?
July 14, 2022 at 09:42PM Alexis Petridis