Saturday, June 15, 2024

How Mary J. Blige’s trauma helped a generation heal

For three decades, Mary J. Blige has been releasing music that isn’t afraid to speak openly about trauma, healing and hope. And for three decades, her fans have been right there with her, caught up in her vulnerability and the sheer talent she has.

With 13 albums to go through, let’s take a look at what listeners could take away from the music she put out as she worked through her own struggles. Obviously, we could fill several pages with her breathtaking talent, but we’ve picked a few lyrics for each album.

Mary J. Blige, in concert at Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall in New Jersey on Oct. 29. (Photo by Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)

Mary J. Blige debuts with ‘What’s the 411?’

Right from the start, Blige showed that she wasn’t afraid to be open and honest. Coming out with her genre-defining blend of R&B and hip hop on her 1992 debut album, she quickly rose up the charts. All the while, she was in a turbulent relationship with K-Ci, whose duet with her on “I Don’t Want to Do Anything” rocked fans’ worlds.

Stand-out lyrics

  • “Why can’t you tell me why we couldn’t be together?” –  “Changes I’ve Been Going Through”
  • “I do everything for you/but in your smile/I still can’t find” –  “I Don’t Want to Do Anything”
  • “So I slowly came to see all of the things that you were made of/And now I hope my dreams and inspiration lead me towards a real love” –  “Real Love”

‘My Life’ puts singer and her vulnerability on the map

When Blige put out her sophomore album in 1994, she was coming out of the haze of an abusive relationship and was struggling with depression and addiction. She put to words everything that she was going through, and what followed was a career-defining album that gave her listeners permission to admit to themselves that they, too, deserved better.

In the 2021 “My Life” documentary about that album’s release, Blige admitted that the album was “a cry for help.” And fans heard it for what it was and recognized that same cry in themselves.

Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige in June 2021, at the New York premiere of “Mary J. Blige’s My Life,” a documentary about the stories behind her album “My Life.” (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Stand-out lyrics

  • “Oh, please forgive me, baby/I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry/What did I do wrong?” –  “I’m Goin’ Down”
  • “Now that I’m on my own/I know that in time, I’ll find somebody new/(Who’ll treat me better than you)” –  “I Love You”
  • “How can I love somebody else/If I can’t love myself enough to know/When it’s time/Time to let go” –  “Be Happy”
  • “I gave my heart to you/What more can I do/To show you how much I care?” –  “I’m the Only Woman”

‘Share My World’ helps us pick ourselves up

Where “My Life” was an album packed with vulnerability and hope, 1997’s “Share My World” was Blige’s way of letting fans know that happiness was worth the work they were putting in to get there. With a little time and distance from the heartbreak that propelled “My Life” and with the support of her fans that came with success, she took listeners with her on her journey to healing.

Stand-out lyrics

  • “Sitting here, wondering why you don’t love me/The way that I love you” –  “I Can Love You”
  • “When you’re lovin’ me, put your lovin’ arms around me/When you’re lovin’ me, said I feel so safe, I find security/When you’re lovin’ me, forever I want you to hold me” –  “Everything”
  • “No, I’m not gon’ cry, it’s not the time/’Cause you’re not worth my tears (Can’t do it)” –  “Not Gon’ Cry”

‘Mary’ elevates hope

Building on the turn toward healing that Blige had laid out in “Share My World,” “Mary” marked a turning point in the artist’s career. The 1999 album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, proving her doubters wrong and, in so doing, proving the thesis of this album: that she wasn’t going to stay down. And her listeners drew from her call to power and passion.

Mary J. Blige
The album “Mary” marked a turning point in Mary J. Blige’s career. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Stand-out lyrics

  • “One thing, I’m not as weak/I’ll always stand alone/But my heart is not made of stone/So I’ll go on” –  “Sincerity”
  • “What’s the point of love when you’ve got no trust?/What’s the point of stayin’ when you’ve seen enough?/What’s the point of givin’ what he don’t deserve?” –  “Don’t Waste Your Time”
  • “Genuine, seraphim/Sweeter than cinnamon/Heaven-sent gentleman/Synonyms for loving him” –  “All That I Can Say”

‘No More Drama’ makes a statement

When Blige picked out the title for her next album, she absolutely meant it. In a Rolling Stone article, the producers of the 2001 album, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, described “No More Drama” as Blige “putting her foot down,” and listeners definitely got the message. In the journey of healing, this was the stage of defiance.

Stand-out lyrics

  • “Ooh, it feels so good/When you let go/Of all the drama in your life” –  “No More Drama”
  • “‘Cause we celebrating no more drama in our life/With a Dre track pumpin’, everybody’s jumpin’” –  “Family Affair”
  • “It’s just those rainy days/Spend a lifetime tryna wash away (Tryna wash ’em away)/Until the sun come out and shines again (Until the sun shines)/Smile for me, smile for me (Smile, smile, smile)” –  “Rainy Dayz”

Blige brings affirmation in ‘Love & Life’

When “Love & Life” came out in 2003, Rolling Stone described Blige as having the heart of “an old-fashioned blues singer” who knows the strength of “joy pulled from the jaws of despair.” This album put that attitude on full display and taught anyone listening that healing can be an act of determination and bravery.

Stand-out lyrics

  • “Why won’t you grow up and be a man someday/I can’t believe that you’re still playing silly games” –  “Not Today”
  • “And I never knew that I/Could fall in love on the very first night” –  “Love @ First Sight”
  • “It’s hard, it’s just so hard but/I just gotta think about myself” –  “Happy Endings”
mary j Blige
Mary J. Blige said she has used music to face her own demons. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

‘The Breakthrough’ tells us we can get through anything

As Blige taught a generation to let go of drama and find joy, her next album, “The Breakthrough,” focused on introspection and on controlling what is controllable. She admitted to Essence that she had used her music to face her own demons, including being molested as a child.

“I want other women to know that something like that can happen to you, and you can still grow to be happy and you can still break through to the other side,” she said.

And her fans absolutely picked up on that message. “The Breakthrough,” released in 2005, is about freedom and hope as much as it is about facing what happened, and her listeners loved every second.

Stand-out lyrics

  • “We’ve been too strong for too long/And I can’t be without you, baby” –  “Be Without You”
  • “I got to be out my mind to think I need someone to carry me” –  “Enough Cryin’”
  • “Have you come here for forgiveness?/Have you come to raise the dead?/Have you come here to play Jesus/To the lepers in your head?” –  “One”

‘Growing Pains’ is made for us

By the time Blige released “Growing Pains,” she knew that she had found success and knew that her albums were connecting with people. And so, she told Target before the 2007 release of “Growing Pains,” she wanted to put something out “for the love of my fans.” Considering how much of healing can be about finding community, that message seemed to build on everything else she taught her listeners on top of being a gift for them.

65th GRAMMY Awards - Show
Mary J. Blige performs in February during the 65th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. She has won nine Grammys during her career. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

Stand-out lyrics

  • “And no time for negative vibes, ’cause I’m winning” –  “Just Fine”
  • “Wanna hold your head high ’cause you’re a pretty woman/Get your runway stride on and keep going” –  “Work That”
  • “I love my man/And I know my place, I know my worth/And I just can’t stand/To see myself as I hurt” –  “Roses”

Reminding us what she’s been through with ‘Stronger with Each Tear’

With “Stronger with Each Tear,” Blige showcased the depths of her talent. The 2009 album was as diverse as her life experience, allowing fans to come with her on a journey of introspection and confidence. Once again, she reminded her listeners that strength comes from not letting anyone keep you down.

Stand-out lyrics

  • “Lemme break it down if you don’t get it/Quality, I’m custom fitted/I’mma say it again, they ain’t got/Nothin’ on me! Nothin’ on me!” –  “The One”
  • “There is no need to go lookin’ for nothing more/’Cause I’ve got everything you’ll ever need right here” –  “I Am”
  • “It took a long time to get to this place/And now that I’m here no one could ever erase/The joy that I feel way down deep beside/The love that I have for me will never, never die” –  “Color”

Blige offers a sequel with ‘My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1)’

In 2011, seventeen years after “My Life” came out, Blige put out her tenth album and made it, in her words, a “sequel” and “extension” of that career-defining sophomore album. It was her way of telling her fans that, yes, heartbreak and hardship happen; but after all these years, she and her listeners had been on a journey that told them they could handle whatever comes.

Pepsi Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show
Mary J. Blige performs in February 2022 during the Super Bowl halftime show at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Stand-out lyrics

  • “I’m strong but I can break/I be prayin so hard to get thru the day” –  “Someone to Love Me (Naked)”
  • “A woman, she needs more than material things/And a woman needs so much more than what a man can say” –  “Love a Woman”
  • “See, I’m to the point where I don’t know what I believe in” –  “Feel Inside”

Changing things up with ‘The London Sessions’

If you thought you knew what to expect from a new Mary J. Blige album when “The London Sessions” came out in 2014, you were in for a pleasant surprise. And yet, even while she was experimenting with new sounds and styles, one thing remained the same: she felt real in a way that anyone listening could feel in their bones in each song.

Stand-out lyrics

  • “Now you’re looking at a leader/Now you’re staring at a queen/You’d said I’d never be someone/But now I’m pulling those strings” –  “Doubt”
  • “See winter took most of my heart/And Spring punched me right in the stomach/Summer came looking for blood/And by Autumn, I was left with nothing” –  “Whole Damn Year”
  • “Why would I spend the rest of my days unhappy?/Why would I spend the rest of this year alone?/When I can go therapy, when I can go therapy/When I can go therapy, two times a day” –  “Therapy”

‘Strength of a Woman’ draws from new trauma

After 13 years, Blige saw her marriage falling apart, even as she came up on 25 years of her music career. The trauma that came from losing something precious that had helped her through previous pain was raw and present throughout the 2017 album she put out at the time, “Strength of a Woman.” And as she told NPR, “I’m not going to be broken,” giving her fans another rallying cry for their own battles.

Stand-out lyrics

  • “Truth can be the sweetest pain/It can mess up everything” –  “Love Yourself”
  • “From really feeling like I’m gonna lose it/Now I’m helping somebody get through it/Yeah, I feel pain but I use it” –  “Survivor”
  • “‘Cause every time I think of the lies you told to me/Make it easy for me to leave” –  “U + Me”
BET Awards 2022 - Arrivals
Mary J. Blige attends the 2022 BET Awards last June at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. She won an award for “Good Morning Gorgeous.” (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for BET)

‘Good Morning Gorgeous’ sees Blige rise above it all

In Blige’s first album after her messy divorce, fans were blessed with not only the hope and healing that she had been delivering for a while but also the raw emotion that allowed her listeners to connect with her so deeply each time she went through it. Last year’s release, “Good Morning Gorgeous,” is, as Mic put it, “heartbreak medicine.”

Stand-out lyrics

  • “All the times that I hated myself (Yeah)/All the times that I wanted to be someone else (Yeah)/All the times that I should’ve been gentle with me/All the times that I should’ve been careful with me” –  “Good Morning Gorgeous”
  • “Phone out, she recording just so she can get the proof/It was all good when we was in the mood but I scratched that” –  “Rent Money”
  • “You can’t see what you got at home/You’re dead wrong not to fight for it” –  “Enough”

The thing about Mary J. Blige is that she’s so talented and so consistently good that we can’t possibly have hit every favorite moment or moving lyric. But, hey, if this little look back gives you an excuse to remind yourself of your own favorites, go on. Enjoy the journey.


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