What's The 411?

Mary J. Blige

Uptown, 1992


REVIEW BY: Mark Millan


R&B superstar Mary J. Blige’s story is the stuff dreams are made of. As an aspiring singer at the dawn of a new decade, the-then seventeen year old cut a cover of Anita Baker’s hit single “Caught Up In The Rapture” at a local mall. Through a family friend, the track made its way to Uptown record’s boss Andre Harrell, and in a very short time, Blige had not only become the label’s prodigy, she was already working with Puff Daddy on tracks that would make up her debut album What’s The 411?, released in mid-’92. 

Blige’s youth was betrayed by her singing voice, which displayed a maturity and a rawness that saw critics comparing her to everyone from her immediate contemporaries to even the legend herself, Aretha Franklin. With Puff Daddy producing the bulk of the disc, the only challenge was to select material that would showcase Blige’s raw talent in a positive light. Where the industry moguls of today would try and pretty her image up and force her to record sappy, “uplifting” songs, Uptown showed a great deal of courage in letting Blige do her own thing, taking as many risks as the young artist herself. The title of this record derived from Blige’s job as a 4-1-1 operator, but the title track has nothing to do with offering assistance of any kind; instead, it finds her rapping sweet nothings with Grand Puba over a bass-driven track.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Leave A Message” is similar in style, as Blige’s answering service is kept busy by a series of messages from folks calling for no particular reason at all – no wonder she never picks up.  “Reminisce” is a slick, Whitney-esque R&B track that gives Blige a chance to prove she can sing just as well as rap. “Real Love” is another upbeat love song that the young Blige revels in singing; it still gets a rousing response when she dusts it off during gigs. 

This album was so influential upon its release that it was responsible for officially creating a new genre, Hip Hop Soul. This was due to Blige’s knack for singing over hip-hop style beats that would normally accompany rapping rather than singing. A perfect example of this is my favorite track on the album, “You Remind Me.” “Sweet Thing” is probably the most “pop” of all the songs on offer here. It’s another love song and Blige softens her tone a little to keep everything sweet. 

“Love No Limit” and “My Love” both add to the overall theme of the album: Mary J. searching for new loves while lamenting the past ones. Cedric Hailey pops up to join Mary for a slick duet on “I Don’t Want To Do Anything,” and it’s another highlight on this brilliant album, as is the autobiographical “Changes I’ve Been Going Through.” 

All in all, What’s The 411? remains a landmark album and one of the great R&B records of the ‘90s. Blige has gone on to become not only a stellar performer but a talented writer and a great singer. She really is the whole package, and has been responsible for influencing almost every up-and-coming R&B artist out there today. This is where it all started.

Rating: A

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© 2010 Mark Millan and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Uptown, and is used for informational purposes only.