Not many artists would start their debut project by incorporating phone messages from other producers and artists praising their first album. Well, that’s just what hip hop/soul legend Mary J. Blige did on her 1992 record What’s the 411? By hyping herself up on the intro song, “Leave a Message,” Blige would solidify herself as a force to be reckoned with in the music industry, even before being praised as the “Queen of hip hop soul” years later.” It’s also that same tenacity that caught the eye of none other than Puff Daddy, who was one of the few to believe in her at first.
Blige’s understanding of musical history has always been uncanny, and listeners got a sense of that on her debut appearance. Each sample integrated into the project was tastefully used, and Blige adds her own incredible talents making for a very cohesive piece of music that just captures your attention from start to finish.
She makes it clear from the start that her repertoire of melodic ability outperformed any one else’s at the time within the genre. While most of the ballads on here involve love in some form, each track has it’s own unique sound to it, so it’s pretty easy to distinguish between each single.
The first official song on Blige’s debut project, “Reminisce” had Puff Daddy production written all over it. The beat sounds like something Biggie could have used, and the usage of Gospel vocals in the background really brought the entire track together. Blige’s first top 10 pop song of her career “Real Love,” was a catchy but gorgeous tune about searching for a real keeper in a relationship. The hip hop production is not only memorable, but the chorus is enough to keep people singing. This was definitely Blige illustrating to people her ability to create a pop hit for the radio. Her lyrical intelligence was what keeps a lot of these songs from being bland and forgettable.
On “You Remind Me,” Blige sounded a lot more soulful, and she really gave people a sense of how high her vocals can really go. This was also her first R&B top 40 hit, which is important to note because again, it just shows how multi-talented she really was.
I love how she incorporated a Busta Rhymes verse on this project here, as it solidifies her importance once again even at the beginning of her career. She made it clear right from the beginning that she would continue to be relevant for years to come. her understanding of the musical past was really illustrated on the single, “Sweet Thing,” where she tastefully covered the original track written by Chaka Khan called “Rufus.”
Her range of musical ability continued on “Love no Limit,” where Blige included a more jazzy feel to the production; complementing her voice in an authentic manner. It was so different from her previous tunes on the album that even Puff Daddy himself was a little skeptical on adding it on the trackless. Nonetheless, I think it was the right decision to keep it on because, it expresses Blige’s talents in another tone.
“I Don’t Want to Do Anything” definitely added a more sexual theme to the album, and Blige was right in her wheel house with this R&B ballad. The slower tempo and excellent addition of K-Ci from Jodeci (and later K-Ci & Jojo) really capped off perfect chemistry over some gorgeous horns in the background. I’m surprised this wasn’t as popular as some of the other pop/soulful hits earlier on the record.
The same type of R&B sound was explored on “Slow Down,” where Blige stole the show once again without any help this time. A delightful flute sample was added in during the the chorus, which really drove this song home as one of the highlights on the entire project.
“My Love” was clearly a tone change from the other songs about adoration where, Blige was for sure more hesitant in the relationship discussed in the ballad. It has the same impact as the other tracks though. “Changes I’ve Been Going Through” was perfect at this point on the record because it not only showed the growth of Blige throughout her relationships, but it also portrayed her improvement as an artist even within her debut performance. I almost wish she had ended the album there.
But instead, the title track “What’s the 411?” was the song that Blige left us with. This was by far the most hip hop out of every song, and it reminded people that she can rap just as well as she can sing. It left people wanting more of her unique style.
Twenty-five years after What’s the 411? broke into the music scene, we have artists like Ty Dolla Sign and The Weeknd who are meshing the genres of R&B and hip hop together in a very cohesive manner, much like Blige. It surprises me how little we mention her nowadays when it comes to who made an impact on popular artists like them. I guess we just have to continue to remind ourselves who really is the “Queen of hip hop/soul.”