Published Dec 16, 2019In an era when rappers claim to be doing double-duty as R&B singers, and modern R&B music is often indistinguishable from a hip-hop instrumental, the arrival of a box set featuring the early work of one Mary J. Blige, the "queen of hip-hop soul," is an occasion.
Just in time for the holidays, this HERstory, Vol.1 box set — available in digital, CD and seven-inch vinyl formats — captures Blige in the days when having a soul singer sing (and rap) over extended soul and jazz samples was a novelty. But Blige made it her own. The set captures the singles, remixes and hip-hop team-ups (LL Cool J, Method Man, JAY-Z and the one and only Biggie Smalls) that set the pace for the hip-hop soul sound of the mid- to late '90s, and the tone for the respective genres moving forward.
It was a fateful day when a young Mary J. Blige began a collaborative relationship with a young Sean Combs, not yet Puff Daddy, Diddy or the various nom de guerre he's had over the decades. Her 1992 debut album, What's the 411, established the rap-meets-soul mould. The rest, as they say, is herstory. Her early breakout hit, "You Remind Me" set heads nodding and feet stomping when it dropped and goes hard on soul and rap sensibilities. The thing to note is that the double-LP set isn't necessarily her greatest hits, even though there is a lot of overlap.
Those expecting to her some of the more soulful hits and hidden gems that Blige has had might feel a way. (Please note that hearing Blige not only capably rap but hang with the Notorious B.I.G is the point here.) Indeed, the point of the exercise is to show Blige at the nexus of where rap and R&B collided and intertwined forever more. So you get the hip-hop remixes for "Real Love," "Reminisce" and "What's the 411" respectively. While we dip into the soulful flavours and samples of "Mary Jane" and "Be Happy" we quickly flip back to a track like the JAY-Z collabo "Can't Knock the Hustle."
She's capably branched out into film and television these days, and all respect goes to her longevity. Even in the early days, it was apparent that Blige is a complicated singer who endured a lot of pain, struggle and abuse in her world; it's something that she captured on wax with her vocals, her energy, her emotionality. This collection of hits and rarities by the (still) reigning queen captures a moment in time, a mood, a vibe, an ongoing movement. (UMe)