Review #271: What’s the 411?, Mary J. Blige

Karla Clifton
3 min readMay 10, 2022

#271: What’s the 411?, Mary J. Blige

I’ll admit that I’m not very proud of the last Mary J. Blige review I did, for 1994’s My Life. I say nothing insightful at all. It’s a bit of an embarrassing reminder that I needed to fumble a bit before settling into my Music-Criticism groove, but it’s also great that my writing habits have improved since last July. I’ll give Miss Blige my full attention this time.

After all, this is her debut and her first opportunity to catch the music industry’s eye. She does it by surrounding herself with artists that have the street cred she’s trying to prove she has, like Busta Rhymes (on the hypetastic “Intro Talk”), K-Ci (in the vocally complex “I Don’t Want to Do Anything”) and Grand Puba (on the slick closer “What’s the 411?”). The opener “Leave a Message” is extremely smart, too: It’s a fake recording of several music industry execs mostly giving Blige positive feedback on her album (though some exasperated messages also suggest she may be difficult to work with).

Let’s be real: Most of these are beautiful, hip-hop flavored, layered love songs, which explains why my boyfriend liked it so much. “It sounds so peaceful. I don’t have anxiety at all,” he said wistfully (still scarred from the Minutemen). But as a person who craves anxiety-inducing bands, I needed to warm up this rap-soul idol.

But it’s hard to argue with the sonic painting that Blige does here with her pipes. “Reminisce” has the first instance of this layered vocal effect, which is stunning: her delivery is so passionate, and against the sharp production that ruled Nineties R&B, she shimmers in a way that makes the understated album cover look ridiculous. She’s not a stoic in a blazer and a baseball cap; she’s a street mystic, displayed on songs like “Love No Limit,” which shows off her range from jazzy chanteuse to sassy diva. And the groovy, jubilant “Sweet Thing” takes a Chaka Khan song and remains faithful to it while injecting it with some much-needed attitude.

I kept finding new ways in which Mary J. Blige made these harmonies complex and unexpected, from the sincere “Real Love” to the criminally catchy “My Love.” Real love, my love, limitless love … Damn.

When I read the RS blurb I was surprised to find the rare note of criticism, calling some of the lyrics “pedestrian.” At first I was pretty wrapped up in the soft blankets of MJB’s voice to listen to the words, but I started to hear bits and pieces that stood out as being, well, pedestrian. Like, “You Remind Me” sounds like liquid gold, but then I heard the line I just had to let you know so I had to sing it and winced. Still, I mostly think they’re being harsh. She’s hardly the only person on the list to have a couple bad lines on her album.

After all, keep in mind that she didn’t write a single song on this record. Her next studio album was made up of mostly songs penned by Blige, and guess what, it’s higher up than this one. This was a pleasant record that is going to stick to the sides of my brain for a long time, but I think I might owe My Life another chance, too.

Other Highlights: Puff Daddy wrote and produced several songs on this, but my favorite was “Changes I’ve Been Going Through.” It stands out among the syrupy love songs.

Least Favorite: Okay, on the sex jam “Slow Down,” the lead vocal sounds incredible, but I’m 99% sure that at least one of the vocal harmonies in the background is ever-so-slightly out of tune. Either that or I’m crazy.

Review #270: Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves

Review #272: White Light/White Heat, Velvet Underground