The Post-Breakup Album is always a tricky thing to execute, particularly for female artists.
Write some great songs, and you win the people's support (see: Mama's Gun). But drop some "other" shit and you have men AND women thinking, "I see why he left her ass..." (see: Lauryn Hill Unhinged).
Mary J. Blige's My Life is the rare Post-Breakup Album that manages to transcend feelings of pity or sympathy for the author. You don't just feel Mary's pain, you wish you could make it stop. Although the album dropped at a time when Snoop and the West Coast had everybody claiming "we don't luhh dem hoes," Mary's pain and brutal honesty had even the biggest playa ready to reach back in his closet and put on that trusty ol' Ho Saving Cape one last time.
Men didn't just sympathize with Mary, we empathized as well. We questioned our decisions. We reminisced on past loves and past mistakes. We wondered what could've happened in a woman's life to make her sound so fragile. We wondered if somewhere, someplace there was a woman out there writing her own "My Life" based on her shitty experiences with us. For men, My Life was our guilty conscience. For women, it gave voice to an entire generation. Make no mistake about it, Mary J. Blige's sophomore LP is The Official Life Soundtrack For Black Women With Daddy Issues. It was more than music, it was ministry.
Puff's wholesale jacking of soul classics on What's The 411? Remix damn near served as a dress rehearsal for what Chucky Thompson and Co. would do later on My Life. Musically speaking, listening to the album is like playing "Name That Tune." I'm generally not a fan of guerilla sampling on R&B records, but when something works, it just works. My Life is the rare occasion where the singer truly made the records her own by putting a distinctive spin on the original. Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" is one of my top 5 love songs of all time, but I still get caught singing the melody from "I'm The Only Woman" whenever
I hear it.
Most fans hail My Life as their favorite Mary album and I find it hard to disagree; its my favorite as well. I wouldn't call it her "best," as both Share My World and Mary showed her in better vocal form and had stronger, more polished material, but neither of them come close to My Life's raw emotion. And neither has anything she's done since. My Life is Mary at her most vulnerable. Defeated. Confused. Heartbroken. Tormented. The album isn't just a collection of songs; its an all out cry of desperation. Even the track listing reads like a love poem from a mentally unstable ex-girlfriend:
You Bring Me Joy
You Gotta Believe
I'm Goin' Down
I Never Wanna Live Without You
No One Else
I'm The Only Woman
Every man has had at least one drama-filled relationship in his life and has developed his own set of defense mechanisms for dealing with a histrionic woman. The truth is, it's easy for us as men to deal with a woman who's screaming and hollering and accusing us of infidelity, selfishness, or any other hot button marital topic. For
one, that lets us know that she still cares and that we're ultimately still in control of the situation. After all, its not until the coach stops yelling at you that you know your job is in trouble.
But when a woman lets her guard all the way down and repeatedly asks, "Baby won't you stay with me a little while?" ("I Never Wanna Live Without You") what is your defense then?
When a woman sits you down and hits you with a request as painfully honest as "All I ask is that you make me feel like I'm somebody" ("I'm The Only Woman"), what the hell do you say to that? How do you diffuse that situation? How do you begin to explain to her that she already is somebody, with or without you? These quiet, uneasy moments are what define all relationships, and Mary's ability to capture them is what defines My Life.
In music discussions with my friends and family, I am often asked why the best music often comes from pain and why most artists make their best music when they have nothing. I tell them that, in my opinion, the best music doesn't always come from pain (see: Earth Wind & Fire), but instead it comes from honesty. And generally speaking, people are the most honest when they don't have money and success to distract them from their demons.
In turn, I ask them why as listeners they seem to relate more to sad songs than they do happy ones. They can never give a definitive answer. But to me, there seems to be something in human nature that makes us hold on to memories of sadness more than memories of joy. We remember the wound, but not the bandage. I think My Life's lasting appeal over the years is rooted in its unflinching truths; in the reopening of those old wounds. Hearing Mary's pain takes us back to those uncomfortable periods in our lives when we thought we really WERE going down. It lets us know that there is someone else who has felt that same sadness and reminds us that we're not alone in the world.
When discussing Mary's career with other music "fans," I often hear them say silly things like "Yeah, her new stuff is cool, but I wish she would get on drugs and be heartbroken again so we could get another My Life." Selfish fucking bastards, they are. A true fan would never be so thoughtless.
I don't think we'll ever see Mary as emotionally raw as she was on My Life, and I'm perfectly fine with that. People change, mature and move on with their lives. Of course, the music lover in me would be thrilled to hear Mary give us another dark classic like My Life, but never at the expense of her health, her happiness or her well-being. Never at the expense of her marriage, her family or her sanity. I hope she never has to revisit those dark places again. I wouldn't wish that type of
pain on my worst enemy, and I damn sure wouldn't wish it on a survivor like Mary.
I love her too much.