Mary J. Blige – What’s the 411?

What’s the 411? was released on July 28, 1992 during a time where New Jack Swing production was dominating the urban radio airwaves. It was hailed as a success by many of the culture writers of the early 1990s for its pioneering combination of Hip Hop and soul music alongside the soulful vocals of Mary J. Blige.

Her singing style was refreshing reminder of past R&B songstresses such as her Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Anita Baker, but she brought something new to the table with her rugged girl persona and descriptive lyrical content. These two things made her stand out amongst her R&B/Soul counterparts. Her vocal prowess reigned supreme over Hip Hop infused tracks with sprinkles of hard drum beat patterns and synths. The combination proved to be explosive.

Mary J. Blige’s career began in 1989 when she was signed to Uptown Records by then CEO, Andre Harrell after he listened to her demo of Anita Baker’s classic recording “Caught Up in the Rapture.” She became the youngest at the age of 18 and first female act signed to Uptown Records.

Once signed to the label, an up and coming producer named Sean “P-Diddy” Combs began working with Blige [pictured together, left] to craft her image and sound for the viewing audience.

Her first recording was singing the hook for then popular rapper and label mate Father MC on his song “I’ll Do 4 U” in the fall of 1990. She continued to do more background singing work for other artists on the label while production on her debut album continued to be rescheduled.

What’s the 411? finally began to take shape in late 1991, with Sean “P-Diddy” Combs serving as executive producer. The LP was released by now defunct Uptown Records and it was later dubbed as “one of the most important albums of the nineties” – and it clearly was, due to stature of Blige’s talent.

The album introduced a brand new genre of music called Hip Hop Soul to the masses and it gave birth to a nickname for one of the decade’s best artists. Blige became affectionately known as the “Queen of Hip Hop Soul.”

Featuring the production and writing genius of Dave Hall, Mark Rooney, Mark Morales, Devante Swing, Tony Dofat and Sean “P-Diddy” Combs, What’s the 411? showcased Blige’s gospel tinged vocal ability; such as her rendition of “Sweet Thing,” the classic record from 1975 originally performed by Rufus and Chaka Khan.

Her gritty, mezzo-soprano style gave her instant credibility with the urban music audience of the time period. Her style of dress was influenced by the burgeoning mainstream Hip Hop/rap scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, which made her seem more authentic as well.

The first song from this album, “You Remind Me,” went straight to #1 on the Billboard R&B single charts upon its release in the summer of 1992. The second single, “Real Love,” also became another  #1 single on the Billboard R&B charts for Blige, peaking at #7 on the Hot 100 singles.

What’s the 411? went on to reach #6 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart and #53 on the UK Albums Chart. Six singles were released and as a result it sold over three million copies and solidified Blige as a legitimate artist to be reckoned with in the years to come.

This record is one of the first cassette tapes I bought and I vividly remember walking into the Musicland record store in my local mall to purchase this particular album. Her songs were the more popular songs embraced by the kids at my middle school. “You Remind Me,” “Real Love,” “Changes I’ve Been Going Through” and “Reminisce” were infectious songs that made you want to dance. Her influence was undeniable and the originality in the music production spoke volumes.

My favorite record from this album remains “I Don’t Want To Do Anything” written and produced by Devante Swing of Jodeci. The song really highlights the vocal range of both Blige and her duet partner, K-Ci Hailey. It’s been well chronicled that Blige and Hailey were involved in a love affair during this time, which provided incredible magic and authenticity to the record. To me, this is the last true R&B/Soul duet that moved your soul upon hearing the track.

The album provided a blueprint for how contemporary R&B music would be formatted on urban radio stations. It literally changed the game and the musical influence of this record is still apparent almost 20 years later in mainstream R&B music; What’s the 411? was the question then and the answer now is a classic album.