For more than two decades, Mary J. Blige has consistently put out solid albums. In that time, she has released at least one album that didn’t resonate fully with fans and critics. Many consider that work to be 2003’s Love & Life.
Following the commercial success of 2001’s No More Drama, Blige’s Love & Life came at a time in her professional and personal life where she was recovering from addiction and renewing and establishing relationships.
While Blige was building a love nest with her then-husband and manager, she found herself back in the music arms of her long-standing collaborator and friend, P. Diddy.
Returning to humble beginnings, Blige and Diddy settled on recreating their ‘90s hip-hop soul magic on Love & Life. The 18-track set, packed with heavy soul and edgy rap samples, birthed a top-10 R&B hit (“Love @ 1st Sight”) and two other moderately successful singles (“Ooh” and “Not Today”).
Although Love & Life earned Blige her second number one album on the Billboard 200 and gained Blige another platinum victory, the new artistic direction left a sour taste in the mouths of critics and career-long fans. Since then, Blige has done her part to discredit the LP — not performing songs off the project on tour and bypassing and overlooking the album in media conversations.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of Mary J. Blige’s album Love & Life and her two-decade-long career, Rated R&B has ranked all 13 studio albums from least epic to most epic.
13. Stronger with Each Tear (2009)
Stronger with Each Tear is probably not the successor fans expected after 2007’s regal Growing Pains. Blige’s ninth album is a happy medium between free-good records and tracks that consisted of low-drama. Although Blige was in a ‘stronger’ space vocally, the album fell weak with generic songs like “We Got Hood Love” featuring Trey Songz. Stronger also dawned Blige ostentatious album title phase and her soundtrack scores as album closers.
Hidden Gems: “Kitchen” and “Brand New” (iTunes pre-order track)
12. My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1) (2011)
My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1), planned to be a sequel — or more so “an extension of how far we’ve come” — from 1994’s My Life, had its highs and lows. Of course, there are traces of her dark sophomore album that linger on tracks like “Feel Inside” and “Why.” A favorite, “Don’t Mind,” has become a concert favorite but the remainder of the project felt less Blige, and not cohesive. The creative vision seemingly got lost in the outlandish title that never got a proper Act 2.
Hidden Gems: “No Condition” and “Irreversible”
11. The London Sessions (2014)
After feeling “stale in [her] own career” and needing to “do something different,” Blige took her 12th studio album efforts overseas to record with UK’s brightest stars including Sam Smith, Disclosure, Sam Romans and Emeli Sandé. She sounds right at home on cuts like “Right Now” and “Whole Damn Year;” but she could have done more church groans on the deep house and UK garbage jams such as “Nobody But You.” Even though Blige’s experimental shift was met with uncertain whispers by career-long fans, The London Sessions helped her get her mojo back for future releases.
Hidden Gems: “Pick Me Up” and “Long Hard Look”
10. Strength of a Woman (2017)
Strength of a Woman is that album every estranged MJB fan was waiting on after her divorce news made headlines. Seeking treatment for her emotional wounds, Blige recovered in rare form, and brought 1997’s The Tour moments on revenge songs like trap-jazz “Set Me Free” and stunt-heavy “Glow Up.” But once the thunderstorms of pain cleared, and the sun shined on the second half of the LP, it became almost automatic to restart Strength of a Woman and tirelessly listen to only tracks one through eight.
Hidden Gems: “Telling the Truth” and “Thank You”
9. Love & Life (2003)
Love & Life isn’t Blige’s best work, but it’s definitely not her worst. Overturning the record bin of soul and hip-hop songs from yesteryears, Blige and Diddy apply samples to most tracks on the project that are about happiness, clarity and deliverance. Love & Life is arguably the closest sequel to 1994’s My Life — not 2011’s My Life II. Contrary to My Life, Love & Life isn’t for the brokenhearted. It’s for the daydreamers; even though the emotional intent in Blige’s bluesy voice makes it hard to decipher.
Hidden Gems: “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Willing and Waiting”
8. No More Drama (2001)
Whether you’re listening to the standard or deluxe edition of Blige’s No More Drama album, you’re still hearing a woman seeking to be unchained from the shackles of heartache, confusion and hurt. Boasting her first and only single to reach the Hot 100 summit, No More Drama acts as an introspective effort to Blige as she steers through her horrendous past and guides herself to a clear place of self-love and self-fulfillment. Blige’s sunny front can take a toll on listeners but the conviction in her raspy voice and the olden days soul influences makes it all worthwhile.
Hidden Gems: “Never Been” and “2 U”
7. A Mary Christmas (2013)
A Mary Christmas flaunts the broad spectrum of talents by Blige. As risky as recording a holiday album filled with festive classics is, Blige took on the challenge and seized every moment to be great and exceed consumer and critic expectations. While Blige walked confident lines on French and Spanish recordings and other signature Christmas songs, she tripped a bit on “The First Noel,” a voice-heavy carol featuring The Clark Sisters. Besides the shortage of incorporating her hip-hop soul flare on a contemporary holiday score, A Mary Christmas is solid.
Hidden Gems: “Mary, Did You Know” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” featuring Jessie J
6. Share My World (1997)
Breaking free from Diddy’s (then Puff Daddy) hip-hop soul direction (and her toxic relationship with K-Ci Hailey), Blige celebrated her emancipation on Share My World. Aligning herself with mega-producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Rodney Jerkins and Bryce Wilson, Blige’s brighter opinion on the state of her well-being shined through on this project. Share My World also established Blige as more than the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul while grooming her to be the heir to a new throne — R&B.
Hidden Gems: “Searching” and “Can’t Get You Off My Mind”
5. The Breakthrough (2005)
Blige’s ‘breakthrough’ almost didn’t happen. Originally, the soul diva and her label were ready to shelve a compilation of her greatest hits in stores. But Blige had much more to do for R&B. Unlike her sixth studio effort, Blige’s transparency about her fresh start on ‘love and life’ was clear and refreshing to hear on The Breakthrough. With sprinkles of modern soul music, dashes of hip-hop and a pinch of crossover appeal, The Breakthrough excited all music tasters — and the charts.
Hidden Gems: “I Found My Everything” and “No One Will Do”
4. Growing Pains (2007)
Two years after breaking through (and winning three Grammys), Blige had to undergo some Growing Pains for her eighth studio LP. By far this record featured Blige’s greatest vocal performances as she shuffled through urban beats and classic soul instrumentals that championed self-confidence and signaled self-discovery. As remarkable as Growing Pains is, much of the world didn’t get to experience it. Geffen, Blige’s then-label, was ‘just fine’ with pushing one single.
Hidden Gems: “Talk to Me” and “Smoke”
3. What’s the 411? (1992)
Fresh off the block and ready to sing, Blige ceased her moment to be an unforgettable name in music with her critically acclaimed debut album, What’s the 411?. The Puff Daddy-navigated set heard MJB mirroring the sounds of her soul diva idols Anita Baker, Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin while embedding her fly-girl attitude and hip-hop roots into all 10 heart-heavy songs. Easily, What’s the 411? is one of the most important records in pop culture and sourced a genre of music for years to come.
Hidden Gems: “Changes I’ve Been Going Through” and “Sweet Thing”
2. Mary (1999)
Mary is nothing short of amazing. The work is wonderful actually. Steering away from the sleek sounds of its predecessor, Blige separated herself from the contemporary pack and delivered one the ‘90s most unexpected and soothing gems. Engrossed with remnants of ‘70s soul and complicated love lyrics, Mary is arguably the defining moment (and most cohesive album) in Blige’s career.
Hidden Gems: “I’m in Love” and “The Love I Never Had”
1. My Life (1994)
Creating a sophomore album after a highly successful debut can be stressful for an artist. Blige, though, did it with authority and ease and came up with My Life. Spearheaded by Puff Daddy and battered in antique samples from remarkable R&B and gospel stars, Blige opened her intimate diary and flipped through the telling pages in an hour-long set that logged the sensitive worries of her heart and mind. Indisputably, My Life is the highlight in Blige’s two-decade catalog.
Hidden Gems: “I Never Wanna Live Without You” and “Don’t Go”
Honorable mention: The Tour (1998)
As live albums started to become a thing of the past for R&B artists, Blige revived the trend in a cutthroat way. Holding nothing back but probably her cup of Seagram’s gin, which sponsored the concerts, the powerhouse singer got “just a little personal,” and “a little fat,” on her live recordings from two locales of Blige’s 1997-1998 Share My World tour. Blige’s imperfect yet passionate pipes are what we have admired from her for years, and they rule the bulk of the live project. The crowd reactions in between performances are priceless, too.
Hidden Gems: “Day Dreaming” and “Seven Days (Remix)”
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