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After her groundbreaking 1992 debut, What’s the 411?, crowned her the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, it was going to be hard for Mary J. Blige to top herself. But she did just that when her second studio album, My Life, was released 25 years ago on Nov. 29, 1994. Featuring stellar production by Sean “Puffy” Combs, in perhaps his finest work, and Chucky Thompson, this was Blige’s masterpiece, a deeply personal statement.
In honor of the album’s 25th anniversary, we rank all the tracks, minus the interludes, on this R&B classic.
13. “No One Else”
Produced by Mr. Dalvin of Jodeci, this is the only original song on My Life that Blige didn’t have a hand in writing. Opening with that “There is no competition” vocal sample from “La Di Da Di,” the 1985 hip-hop classic by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, it can’t compete with the defining moments on the rest of the album. But still, working as part of the soulful fabric of the whole LP, it’s not a skip track either.
12. “I Never Wanna Live Without You”
Blige is pictured in a blue hue on the cover of My Life, and tracks such as this one are colored with the blues. This ballad -- in the minority as one of the songs not to feature any samples or interpolations -- captures the painful ache in her fear of losing her man, who at the time was K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci.
11. “Be With You”
This jazzy bop kicks off what is essentially the second half of the album, after the “My Life Interlude.” “I can’t deal with the fact that you don’t want me around/Why you wanna see me down?” she sings, referencing the emotional breakdown she’s just had on “I'm Goin’ Down.” But even if Mary’s not getting shown any love, she’s still staying and standing by her man.
10. “Mary’s Joint”
Despite the hip-hop strut in that beat -- and the swag in that title -- you can feel all of the vulnerability in Blige, who sounds almost defeated by the “unnecessary pain” that she’s had to endure. But in the sadness, there’s a real beauty.
9. “Don’t Go”
This is one of three My Life tunes co-written by Faith Evans, who also sings background vocals. Built around that haunting “Baby don’t go” vocal hook, repeated like some kind of mantra, this track hypnotizes you into a world of hurt. But all of the melancholy is mesmerizing.
8. “You Gotta Believe”
Evans also co-wrote this ballad, along with K-Ci Hailey, who sings backgrounds too. It’s a plea from the gut that goes straight to the heart. With Blige summoning some gospel conviction, it feels as if she’s reaching out to a higher power.
7. “I Love You”
Employing a piano sample from Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Mood,” this track perfectly captures Mary’s mood as she bittersweetly reminisces about “all those pretty memories.” Feeling the love in her voice, you can tell exactly why she’s longing for “the way we used to be.”
6. “I’m the Only Woman”
On quick listen, this track (which samples Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love”) might seem like a sexy, slinky boast. But it’s really all about getting her man to kick the other women to the curb. There’s a cinematic quality to the production that ratchets up the drama back before MJB was saying “no more” to that.
5. “Mary Jane (All Night Long)”
The first track after the telephone “Intro” is an ingenious reimagining of the 1983 Mary Jane Girls hit “All Night Long.” “Come into my bedroom honey/What I got will make you spend money,” she sings tantalizingly. It’s a full-on seduction from Blige, who rides atop that bass line with a sultry jazziness. This is the way to stop the fussing and fighting.
4. “You Bring Me Joy”
Generously sampling from the Barry White classic “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me,” this track finds Blige at her happiest moment on My Life. Coming early in the journey that the album takes you on, it sets you up for the darkness to come. But at least this once, she’s truly feeling ecstasy -- and it’s a joy to hear every single time.
3. “I’m Goin’ Down”
Blige totally owns this cover of Rose Royce’s 1976 R&B hit, topping the original (which was hard to do). Letting all the pain rain down, it’s become one of her signature songs for good reason. And to this day, it always gets one of the best audience sing-alongs at any MJB concert.
2. “Be Happy”
“How can I love somebody else/When I can’t love myself enough to know/When it’s time, time to let go.” It’s a realization that Blige comes to at the end of My Life, having suffered through a torturous relationship for most of the album. But the LP’s first single -- which borrows from both Curtis Mayfield (“You’re So Good to Me”) and Marvin Gaye (“I Want You”) -- leaves you with an uplifting sense of hope that Mary will learn to love Mary first.
1. “My Life”
The title track of My Life is on the short list of the very best MJB songs. You can feel her singing for her life at a time when drugs, alcohol and a toxic love were taking over her existence, just as her career was on fire. The sample of Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” is a brilliant choice, given all the clouds surrounding Blige on this album. It’s so unflinchingly personal, but packs a universal power with its catharsis. “Life can be only what you make it/When you’re feeling down, you should never fake it,” she sings. And this is as real as it gets.
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