Why Men Love Mary And ‘My Life’

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
Don't Go

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.

Phonte Coleman is a North Carolina-based singer and rapper and is a member of the group The Foreign Exchange and one-half of the duo Little Brother.

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18 Responses

  1. Fuck that "selfish" shit: I wish that you, Pooh, and 9th would come back together and make another "The Listening".

  2. Loved this post, I so totally agree, although My Life was the rawest thing we could ever get from Mary, I would never, ever want her to be in that place again and to feel those same feelings all over again. To me, that would show no growth!!
    I love Mary, through and through!!

  3. Got-damn... you took the words right off my keyboard with this one. Especially about how there are people who damn near HATE the smiling, dancing MJB who brought us 'Family Affair' and 'Just Fine'. They actually say 'I like sad Mary better'. I do lean more towards her '92-'97 material, but like you said, I wouldn't rather see her go back to that place in her life. Going back just ain't gonna do it- she even tried to go back to workin' with Puff in '03 and it didn't come off the same way. All we have is the moment she was in at that time. And it's a great piece of work that can't be duplicated or rehashed. Even if she never does anything that great again (and I get the feeling she won't) 'My Life' is still here.

  4. Deep and beautiful. Those last 5 paragraphs hit the nail on the head.
    I wouldn't wish that kind of pain on a person but I would never deny a person's pain once s/he has been there. My Life is a tribute to womanhood, love, humanity and our pain; a true testament to the heartache and strength of a woman. There's something profound in the simplicity of each and every word, and that's the sign of genuine suffering, pain so real and raw that sometimes you believe wholeheartedly that death would be better.
    I feel blessed that there is something like My Life in this existence. It feels like you just can't go wrong with a masterpiece like that.
    God Bless Mary and all who suffer

  5. I can't say I've ever even stopped to think about how listening to My Life would make a man feel... After reading this, I know that if I had, ideally it would mirror this. My Life just shows that when you create something that's honest, that's candid, you're going to bring true emotions out of people on both sides of the situation, and from those on the outside looking in.
    Love it.

  6. Hey Phonte - i agree that "my life" was one of the best 90's rnb albums, but i liked the newness and freshness of "whats the 411" - that album was the best in my life, especially REMINISCE, LOVE NO LIMIT and YOU REMIND ME - classic joints right there - the production was flawless...with Dave Hall on them tracks... and then there was whats the 411 remix - that was a classic album - AND then there was share my world - post 2000 Mary kinda lost that "thing" - thats just my 2 cents anyway!!

  7. Wow. That's all I have to say after reading this. Articles like this is why I've been a loyal SB reader for years:)

  8. Preach it Rev. Tigallo!

  9. Kudos Phonte. Nothing more to be said.

  10. Kudos to this post...I don't think many people stop to look at it from the other gender's POV, nor do they stop to think what Mary put into that CD. I personally think that is her best album (with Share My World coming in a very close second as you can tell she's still holding onto some of the pain), but I'm glad that Mary is now in a better place.

  11. I will be the first to admit how there is nothing but truth written within this article. Enjoyed the read. Mary J. Blige revealed her soul to the world on this album. Love, always love me some Mary J. Blige.

  12. WHY MEN LOVE MARY????? thats easy...just look at her fine ass:) I mean Mary is THAT chick, she will ride and die for her man on top of the physical attributes she posses..............I'd wife her in a minute......
    PS Phonte, I agree with G money,, on the the little brother issue. the last album left a bad taste in my mouth. I cant knock you for being on your grind with FE but if at all possible, you 9th and pooh should swallow your pride and get back in the lab.

  13. JEDI props to tigallo for this. my mother was going through an incredibly debilitating marriage when this album came out, and for me and her, it was basically a soundtrack for our lives, since that situation broke both of us. even now, with her out of the situation and finally finding a man that could actually be a husband, it's hard to listen to for me cause it takes me back there. the thing is, you can't deny the beauty in mary not holding anything back here, putting her heart out there for the world to feel. i definitely appreciate her for that, since it reached me at a time where i was watching my own mother go through the exact same thing.

  14. Awesome tribute. Thank you for serving up a man's perspective to many a woman's heartache.

  15. Avatar

    Lyrics to Nag Champa
    "Eyes on the thighs of Mary J. Blige, imagin on how good the cat must be"
    When i listened to this album as a teenager, I so happened to be listening to it nightly through a portable CD player. As the headphones were slightly unplugged, I so happened to observe (in listening) the overlaying harmonies and technology behind this album -- it was my Music Appreciation 099, y'all.
    What is more shocking to me is that no more has mentioned that he sister (Latonya) did backgrounds on this album. And you can feel that Mary was more uncovered on those tracks with Tonya.
    As Phonte said, Mary (with this album) was in rare form and revealed to us a side that we connected with and allowed us to feel apart of her world. When her next album was titled "Share My World", it said what we all were feeling.
    On that note, I think that Mary does have in her that one masterpiece that will have the people talking from generations to come. Share it Mary.

  16. great writeup, phonte 🙂 appreciate the thoughts.

  17. great writeup, phonte. appreciate your thoughts 🙂