My Life reminds me of all my teenage winters. I can’t remember if I owned it or just listened to it at a friend’s house for hours on end, staying in out of the cold. One way or another, we knew the album in its entirety—every word. It was that way with every good song, every dance that we needed to learn, every party that we needed to find. We always got the message. Everyone’s boyfriend or brother was an aspiring DJ. Everyone had a friend of a friend who had a tidbit we needed to hear. We even wrote each other letters, when it came to that, and it often did. Maybe it’s the filter of memory, but information didn’t seem that hard to come by. No one ever seemed that hard to reach. Maybe because we were always together, or when apart, paging each other with the beepers we painstakingly saved up babysitting money to buy. Maybe it was because the breadth of what we thought we needed to know was not yet that great.
In the way that digging into the past reveals forgotten details, I realize now that the winter I most associate with My Life actually took place two years after it came out. The Blizzard of ‘96 was special because it provided an excuse for squirreled away visits with a boy that took on more meaning than they might have otherwise. The storm ground the city to a halt. School was closed for days on end and absolutely nothing was happening. Somehow the boys had trudged thirty blocks through the snow to come stand in the street and shiver in front of our buildings. A few snowball fights and piggyback rides later, and the most devastating thing that could happen to a 90s NYC teen happened. My guy lost his beeper. There were layers upon layers of snow, and no chance of finding it. Until, days later, the beeper appeared miraculously amid the melted ice. That it still worked was a testament to how durable those things were.
I excitedly set the wheels in motion that would let him know we found it. I was thrilled to be the bearer of such good news, but it must be true that no good deed goes unpunished because the grapevine sent back word that he thought my friends and I had orchestrated the mixup to begin with. It seemed too good to be true that the hands of fate had seen fit to return his pager. I was crushed to discover that the way I saw myself was not the way I was seen. I was still emotionally innocent enough to believe that people would see me exactly as I thought I presented myself.
If that story happened today, in the era of endless memes and tweets about snooping through phones, DMs, and FB stalking, I’d likely be judged guilty by the court of social media, let alone one teenage boy.
This year, My Life turns 22 years old. That’s just about the age to start looking back on one’s nascent years in wonder, right? Mary J. Blige once described My Life as the album that “reached out and grabbed everyone and said, ‘I understand.’” To borrow a phrase from the kids, “What’s understood doesn’t need to be explained.” What we felt, even those of us who weren’t even old enough to fully understand what it meant, was her pain. The songs were pain, the album was drugs. The embodiment of love that hurts so good. She has said she felt herself slipping away during its making—that there was a “suicide spirit on there.” Rumors swirled about drugs, drinking, bad behavior, rude demands, angry interviews, and a volatile relationship with K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci.
Listening now, the album plays like the stages of grief. Mary Jane. You Bring Me Joy. I’m the Only Woman. My Life. You Gotta Believe. I Never Wanna Live Without You. I’m Goin’ Down. Be With You. Don’t Go. I Love You. No One Else. Be Happy. Still, within the pain in her voice, as she lays herself bare, life remains: “In order for me to heal, I have to talk. I have to write it out. I have to hang it out. I have to talk it out. I have to cry it out. I have to get it out.”
For years people have said, some jokingly, many dead serious, that Mary J. Blige lost her Midas touch once she was drug-free and no longer in a tumultuous—and possibly abusive—relationship. They are rabid for the “Old Mary.” Hurt Mary. Watch old videos of Mary doing press for My Life in 1994—she’s reserved, quiet, tentative. We don’t truly begin to see her spirit come alive until she grabs the mic. She’s 23 years old, a pretty tomboy with a tough exterior built to hide a hurt interior, thrust into the spotlight. Pain hidden behind a shy smile and few words. We have videos of her performances and interviews and articles, but we filled in the rest from the music. If social media had been around when Mary was dating K-Ci, who knows what we would have seen or heard?
She has a new album coming soon featuring a song with Kanye West. It will be interesting to see what those two created in the lab. She who seems to have broken with most of the past that made My Life so painful and yet so pure, and he, who seems to have broken with the past that perhaps kept him safe. In the court of public opinion she has become too happy and possibly too safe, he, too free, and too wild.
I come back to one of Kanye’s epic rants again and again—when he said, “As a man, I am flawed. But my music is perfect.” Full disclosure: I find it fascinating. Short of the craziness of the now infamous interview he gave on Sway in the Morning where he claimed to be Warhol, Walt Disney, and Google—it’s one of his wilder boasts. There’s something beautiful in having that much belief in your work, especially when you know so many people disagree. My fight song is “Everything I Am” from Graduation. I know “I’ll never be picture-perfect Beyonce,” and “I’ll never be laid back as this beat was.” And that’s okay. Kanye has long known how much love/hate he inspires—”They rather give me the nigga please award / but I’ll just take the I got a lot of cheese award.” He knows fans clamor for the “Old Kanye” they believe died when he lost his mother. He addresses it on “I Love Kanye” from The Life of Pablo, and assures us that every Kanye is a Kanye of his creation and we will take whatever iteration he sees fit to present. We will love him, or leave him alone.
Maybe that kind of hubris can only come after experiencing extreme pain.
It’s telling to watch someone engage with change over and over and still be their own biggest advocate. It’s the hope that a focused attempt at self-love and a commitment to artistry can lead to growth. That’s the promise, right? That those risks might lead to glory. The only way out is through, whether the end result is loved or panned. Otherwise we risk relying on our inherently fallible memories of the past, the shadows of people we once knew, the safety we thought we had, and longing for more of the same.
—Lee Erica Elder