In 1994, the 23-year-old from Yonkers, New York, was coming off the triple-platinum triumph of her hip-hop/soul debut, What's the 411? Still, sophomore success wasn't necessarily a sure thing. A thick fog of depression and heartbreak, exacerbated by substance abuse, had settled over Mary. So when she ventured again into the studio, a 25-year-old executive named Puffy (a.k.a Diddy), a couple of untested producers -- and all of her demons were waiting for her.
Pain would prove to be a potent ingredient though. Mary's real life was falling apart, but instead of running away from it on the record, she spilled tea like she had stock in Lipton. The pleading, thinly veiled song titles rumored to be about her ex K-Ci, a lead singer of the chart-topping group Jodeci, would make even Taylor Swift blush: "You Bring Me Joy," "No One Else," "I Never Wanna Live Without You," "I'm the Only Woman."
Beg, borrow or steal seemed to be the mantra throughout. So for example, on the dizzying "I Love You," you could hear Blige begging, "I wish you'd change your ways soon enough, so we can be together," over soulful samples borrowed from Isaac Hayes and DJ Hollywood.
Wishing your man would change for you isn't exactly the stuff of feminist anthems but Blige was telling the truth. And she was doing it with the kind of ride-or-die steeliness you cultivate when you grow up in the combustible Schlobohm (or "Slow Bomb") Houses in NYC. For a generation raised on hip-hop -- one that had put a premium on keeping it very real -- the raw honesty resonated.
The singer spit knives over 17 wrenching tracks and interludes. By the record's closer, "Happy," she seemed exhausted, posing the rather enlightened question: "How can I love somebody else, if I can't love myself enough to know when it's time to let go?" THIS. On a massive, radio-ready single.
It was years before I experienced for the first time the kind of searing romantic rejection Mary was trying to recover from on My Life, but I knew that what I was hearing was a game-changer, both sonically and lyrically. I revisited the album after the loss of a boyfriend left me so damaged, the old me seemed to die and come back a poetry-writing ghost.
I wasn't alone, either. Legions of fans, guys and girls, connected to the confessional collection, and to the underlying sentiment that all we ever really want is "to be happy." If as Mary explained in an interview this week, "soul music has healing," then the seminal My Life album is still the ultimate pain medicine.