Friday, July 30, 2010

Classic Album Battle: What's The 411 Vs. My Life

Oh yeah, I went there. Most Mary J. fans(including myself) and general R&B lovers alike consider What's The 411? and My Life to be her best music. However, which one is better?

What's The 411?

Let's start with What's The 411? the album that begat Mary's career and her reign as The Queen of Hip Hop Soul. But first, a little history. When Mary's debut dropped in '92, it signaled a new direction in female R&B, in both sound and image.
At the time the top songstresses (Whitney, Mariah, En Vogue, Anita, Patti) made slick, polished R&B and wore glamorous evening gowns onstage. Mary on the other hand, rocked combat boots, baseball caps, jerseys and a nose ring (check out the "Reminisce" video if you don't believe:).

And her music, while smooth and soulful, also had the grittiness and hard edge a generation raised on hip hop had come to expect from their music. True there were other artists who had blended hip hop and R&B before her (Nehneh Cherry and TLC come to mind) but without a doubt Blige made the most impact.

For me the first album, while featuring undeniable classics such as "Real Love," "Reminisce," "You Remind Me," "Love No Limit," and a cover of Chaka Khan and Rufus' "Sweet Thing," is a little uneven. While album tracks like "I Don't Wanna Do Anything Else" and "My Love" are great, the other songs-"Changes I've Been Going Through" and "Slow Down," while fine, just don't grab me.

And the interludes, which were kind of unique when the album was released (Lawd knows only Janet was doing it at the time, lol) haven't really stood the test of time, and I find myself skipping them just to get to music. In my view they really don't tie the songs together, but feel like an intrusion.

My Life

To me, this is Mary's masterpiece. Maybe it was because she was going through some thangs at the time(which we know all too well about now) or because she had more of a hand in the songwriting process, but My Life is arguably one of the best R&B albums ever. Both the music, which this time features a less obvious hip hop influence but is still beat heavy, and lyrics fit together.

Every song works together to create a seamless stream of music, from the remakes of "Mary Jane (All Night Long)" and "I'm Goin' Down" to the Barry White sampling "You Bring Me Joy" and "Be Happy." The title track, which samples Roy Ayer's "Sunshine" just touches some deep place inside me whenever I hear it. Some people complained that Puffy and Mary relied a little too much on the samples, but to me they give the whole album a cohesivenesss that What's The 411? lacked.

The track placement of the album is also fits its themes of love, longing and drama. While the album starts off on kind of an upbeat party vibe with "All Night Long" and "You Bring Me Joy" it slowly spirals down into Mary's depression and heartbreak with "My Life," "You Gotta Believe," "Never Wanna Live Without You," "I'm Goin' Down" before ending in wishful melancholy with "Be Happy."

I can play this whole album through without wanting to skip a single track. Even the interludes don't interrupt the flow, but just take you deeper into Mary's world. Over 15 years after its release, it still slaughters almost every R&B album out right now. I love both albums, but if I had to choose between them, I'd pick My Life. So which do you think is better?
Get into videos from both albums below:

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