Thirty years seems like forever for an artist of Mary J. Blige’s stature to finally see themselves as a queen. In a February interview with long-standing friend and radio personality Angie Martinez, Blige dubiously played iHeartRadio’s The Box.
In this game, she gave commentary on items and moments from her storied career placed in the box. One item was a crown, suggesting the long-running title she holds as Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
The late cultural icon and Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell and Blige’s longtime collaborator and music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs dubbed her royalty ahead of her defining debut album What’s the 411?, which turns 30 on July 28. Martinez asked Blige to discuss the significance of the crown at this point in her career. What Blige said could be shocking to most.
“I have to walk in it now. I never really did, but I have to walk in it now because it’s been so many years, and if I don’t walk in it like I’m a fool,” Blige explained to Martinez. “I’m a fool not to receive who I am, who God made me to be, obviously because it could have been over. I could be dead, or I could be finished. But I’m walking in it ‘cause obviously, I’m it.”
How has Blige remained present on a throne she rarely acknowledged or, in a sense, didn’t fully comprehend until now? Maybe it’s because she was too busy existing, going through peaks and valleys to heal herself, and unknowingly helping a devoted audience transform their lives for the better.
Though the songs on What’s the 411? weren’t written by Blige, her authentic persona and range of musical influences, from Anita Baker and Biz Markie, inspired studio associates to carve a lane in which only she could inhabit.
Blige’s consistency has been remarkably praiseworthy over the last three decades. She is a resourceful chameleon whose absorption of an era’s specific sound and image sets her apart from her contemporaries. She never shied away from a challenge musically, nor has she chased a wave and seemed out of place. Instead, Blige adapted to varying innovations while keeping her influential presence at the forefront of her music.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of Mary J. Blige’s trend-setting debut album, Rated R&B selected 30 of her best songs. Please note: This ranked list does not include songs on which she was featured.
30. “Willing & Waiting” — Love & Life (2003)
Undoubtedly, this schmaltzy, sampled-driven downtempo would have been in rotation on Soul Train in its ‘70s prime.
29. “Self Love” — Think Like a Man Too Soundtrack (2014)
Some of Blige’s best material is on this soundtrack, and this DJ Camper-produced cut is a terrific reminder.
28. “Right Now” — The London Sessions (2014)
Taken from Blige’s second full-length of 2014, this sleek cautionary tale moved her closer to establishing herself as one of the most ever-changing artists.
27. “We Ride (I See The Future)” — Reflections – A Retrospective (2006)
Bryan-Michael Cox and Johntá Austin had an impressive run with Blige in the mid to late 2000s, and it couldn’t have been better evidenced than in big love songs like this.
26. “Love Without the Heartbreak” — Good Morning Gorgeous (2022)
Leave it to Anderson .Paak to remind us that Blige can sharpen her endeared late ’90s sound without it sounding dated.
25. “Come to Me (Peace) — Growing Pains (2007)
Blige seemed to be in a softhearted space on this synth-filled album closer, reaching out her hand to a partner she wants to work it out with despite romantic conflicts.
24. “I Am” — Stronger WithEachTear (2009)
Singing boisterously of unrivaled devotion and commitment, Blige showcases a lighthearted vocal over a StarGate production.
23. “Thick of It” — Strength of a Woman (2017)
This record-breaking Jazmine Sullivan-penned single is impressive in how it is both throwback and modern, balancing out Blige’s emotionally-charged vocals with a quasi-Migos cadence.
22. “Shake Down” with Usher — Growing Pains (2007)
Blige called in back-up on this passionate frisk search where she and Usher went back and forth in their request for their partners to spread ’em.
21. “Don’t Mind” — My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act I) (2011)
On this definite highlight from the so-called My Life sequel, Blige stands tall on the promise that no outside interference will destroy the love between her and her man.
20. “Enough Cryin” featuring Brook Lynn — The Breakthrough (2005)
Had Foxy Brown delivered the rap verse as scheduled on this Darkchild-produced anthem, we wouldn’t have seen the full bloom of Blige’s rap alter-ego Brook Lynn. Sometimes things work out for the best.
19. “Beautiful Ones” — Mary (1999)
Carved from the influence of Earl Klugh’s “The April Fools,” this enchanting ballad brought the late Chucky Thompson and Blige back together after years apart musically since 1994’s My Life.
18. “Seven Days” — Share My World (1997)
For the final Share My World single, Blige leaned on Malik Pendelton to write a song about a woman in a harmful dalliance with a good friend after an innocent game of truth or dare. Haven’t we all been there before.
17. “Take Me As I Am” — The Breakthrough (2005)
Wrapped in self-acceptance, the universal anthem co-written by Keri Hilson, finds Blige in relief from the pressures of others.
16. “All That I Can Say” — Mary (1999)
After Blige contributed to Lauryn Hill’s 1998 award-winning solo debut, Hill returned the favor by writing and producing a retro love song the label deemed as “too mellow” following the success of Share My World.
15. “No More Drama” — No More Drama (2001)
Music geniuses Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis deserve their flowers for coming up with an anthem of survival that has aided Blige and the world in cleansing themselves from personal affliction.
14. “U+Me (Love Lesson)” — Strength of a Woman (2017)
By enlisting co-writers such as Lucky Daye and Prince Charlez, Blige delivered one of the best and most unappreciated R&B songs of the 2010s, recounting her gut feelings about a failed marriage.
13. “Be Happy” — My Life (1994)
On the optimistic song, which served as the first single to My Life, Blige yearns for a sense of felicity within a troubled attachment, but more importantly, within herself to leave it all behind.
12. “Love No Limit (Remix)” — What’s the 411? (Remix) (1992)
This bombastic remix from the Uptown Records camp went from a smoothed-down serenade referencing Anita Baker to the trademark hip-hop soul sound that helped Blige stand out.
11. “I’m Goin Down” — My Life (1994)
Yeah, there aren’t many artists who can record a remake and make it more signature than the original act. But Blige has, and it’s an indisputable fact. Go to one of her future shows and see what we mean.
10. “I Can You Love” featuring Lil’ Kim — Share My World (1997)
Indeed, this certified cult classic possesses its own flow and mood that no other female R&B and hip-hop combo has been able to recapture since.
9. “Beautiful” — How Stella Got Her Groove Back Soundtrack (1998)
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis often mastermind Blige’s best songs. They decidedly know how to design recordings that enable her to outline profound romantic possibilities with great power and meaning.
8. “Everything” — Share My World (1997)
Complete with a refreshing production helmed by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, “Everything” is driven by a hopeful message of finding equanimity in one’s significant other.
7. “You Remind Me” — What’s the 411? (1992)
Before Blige became a legend, she paid her dues with the epic debut single that changed how music executives and creators viewed the marriage between R&B and hip-hop music. “You Remind Me” was trailblazing.
6. “I’m the Only Woman” — My Life (1994)
Blige is totally in control of her seductive and raw vocal prowess on this sure-footed track, providing definitive reasons to her man why another female can’t contest her love.
5. “Not Gon’ Cry” — Waiting to Exhale Soundtrack (1996); Share My World (1997)
Blige served her first dose of mature R&B with a dark tale of love and sacrifice, which made for increasingly tormented live performances for years to come.
4. “Real Love” — What’s the 411? (1992)
Blige continued to make the alignment of soulful R&B with rugged hip-hop beats the standard following the breakthrough of her first single. She had the streets eating out of the palm of her hand here.
3. “Just Fine” — Growing Pains (2007)
Propelled by cheerful synths, rosy lyrics, and a soulfully clear voice, the chirpy lead single to Growing Pains steered vastly away from some of the bleak colors of Blige’s earlier material.
2. “Be Without You” — The Breakthrough (2005)
Named the most successful R&B and hip-hop song of all time by Billboard, this power ballad hears Blige inarguably in love, proving her commitment to her man in an arresting singing style that made you believe every word.
1. “My Life” — My Life (1994)
Blige is devoted to ministering to herself and others, illustrating this selfless quality on the misty eponymous track of her sophomore album. With great use of a woozy and rubbery sample from Roy Ayers’ 1976 jam “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” Blige works through trials to get to a better tomorrow.
Stream Rated R&B’s Mary J. Blige playlist below.