Mary J. Blige Is the R&B Queen of Vulnerability, But Her New Documentary Keeps Fans at Arms’ Length

Vanessa Roth's movie for Amazon Studios gives Mary her flowers, but leaves us with only a vague impression of private hell

Mary J. Blige Is the R&B Queen of Vulnerability, But Her New Documentary Keeps Fans at Arms’ Length
Photo:Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Even when pouring her heart out early in her career, Mary J. Blige was working at a remove. On her landmark second album, 1994’s My Life, she sang mostly of pain and sadness, and it was all reified by her perfectly imperfect delivery: the curdle in her voice, her fearlessly heaving runs, her willingness to go flat for the sake of expression. “If you looked in my life, and see what I see,” she sang on the album’s title track. She wasn’t offering a tour, though. She wasn’t telling us what she saw only that she saw it. Her lyrics provided only the most rudimentary indication of what any of this looked like: “Down and out, crying every day, don’t know what to do or to say,” she riffs during one chorus.

Whatever you were thinking, Blige implied, it was worse.

The songs were pure emotion, and the narrative lacunae were readily filled by an audience who had been through it—whatever one’s personal it was—as well. Blige’s cultural position as an avatar of suffering was defined in part by a proprietary attitude toward her biography. Blige was telling her story, but she was also not telling and sometimes pointedly so. She could be detached in interviews, combative, even: During a notorious 1995 exchange with Veronica Webb in Interview Blige implied she was ready to fight the model-turned-journalist. In 2002, The Guardian reported that Blige’s label sent her to etiquette classes for the comments.

Blige clearly remembers what that felt like. In Vanessa Roth’s documentary about the making of Blige’s sophomore album masterpiece, Mary J. Blige’s My Life (premiering Friday on Amazon Prime), Blige watches an interview with herself from the My Life promo cycle. Her 23-year-old (or so) self is unenthused and somewhat impatient with a journalist. “I didn’t want to tell her what I was really dealing with because it was none of her fucking business,” contemporary Blige recalls.

Blige is hardly the only celebrity to share her world, while also making clear that the world she is sharing is what she wants you to see of it. It’s only natural that maintaining boundaries and retaining a sense of control would be important to those living in the public eye. The problem here is not with Blige’s selectively tight lips—she has given us so much that to expect more would be greedy at this point. The problem is there’s no good reason to make a documentary without a commitment to revealing new information. And so Mary J. Blige’s My Life (which Blige co-executive produced and, according to Roth, commissioned), plays like an extended press release; it wishes to remind us why Blige’s work is important, but only superficially.

The film is the equivalent of Blige leaving herself a five-star Yelp review. Certainly, she deserves it, but those who already know that will find little of use here.

Evasiveness may be her documentary’s downfall, but its precedent lives in Blige’s art. On the My Life album, in fact, the lack of lyrical specificity actually functions as an illustrative device and gives the tracks their emotional power.

Blige conjures a seemingly endless array of ways to plead for forever within a doomed relationship—songs have titles like “I’m the Only Woman,” “Don’t Go,” and “No One Else.” “I just want to be with you,” Blige sings on one track. “I will never leave you,” on another. Mounting desperation shapes the arc of “I Never Wanna Live Without You,” in which Blige’s narrator can’t sleep or eat and declares, “I don’t wanna be alone,” before being reduced to begging in the outtro: “Baby, won’t you stay with me a little while?” “It’s the little things you do for me/That make me very happy,” she sings in “Be With You.”

By withholding personal details, Blige positions herself in the throes of a lovesickness so deep that she can’t even explain what’s so good about this guy she’s singing about. She’s so in it, so in the moment, that feelings are the only fuel. Even the album’s attempts at lightness occur under ominous clouds: “You know if the time is right/I don’t wanna fuss and fight,” is a hell of a way to introduce a song called “You Bring Me Joy,” but Blige does it. There is no joy without pain here. “Mary Jane,” based on a sample of the Mary Jane Girls’ radio-funk classic “All Night Long,” similarly tempers its joy with wariness: “Ooh baby, not tonight I don’t wanna fuss and fight I just wanna make it right.” The album’s closing track and first single, “Be Happy,” demystifies the turmoil. “How can I love somebody else/If I can’t love myself enough to know/When it’s time/Time to let go?,” Blige cries out.

That she bared her soul all over stomping hip-hop beats gave My Life a tension unlike anything that preceded it. The majority of the tracks are based on vintage soul and funk samples, but it is an icy sounding album. Blige is an emotional catalyst who makes My Life do what ice is prone to doing: melt.

Blige has never been one to distance herself from her writing. As she says during one of several brief onstage scenes from her 2019 Royalty Tour with Nas, “Y’all know how real it is. My life is real real real.” The My Life album was aptly titled and the tortured relationship it depicted was based on Blige’s with Jodeci singer K-Ci Hailey. “Hell” is the word Blige has used frequently to describe this relationship, which is said to have begun in the winter of 1992. It’s unclear exactly how long it lasted because Blige has never been clear on the details. Some reports say the relationship lasted six years, though in a 1999 Spin interview with journalist Craig Seymour, she said that 1996 marked her “awakening.”

Whatever the case, Blige has alleged abuse at Hailey’s hand. “I don’t really like to talk about it but it was definitely that. It was Ike and Tina of the ‘90s, on the low. It was some hell. It was a private hell and I just took it,” she said in one interview. “I brought hell to his life because I was already damaged. He brought hell to my life ‘cause he was already damaged. And that’s the result we ended up with: hell,” she said in another.

In addition to the abusive relationship, the My Life era was marked by substance abuse (primarily alcohol and cocaine have been discussed). In a 2011 episode of Behind the Music, Blige recalled driving in the wrong direction on New York’s FDR Drive. “I remember crashing my car into a wall, [spinning] out, and my girlfriend was on the other side just screaming. I really didn’t care about myself. I was borderline suicidal… I was like the walking dead; just smoking and drinking and hanging.”

This anecdote doesn’t make it into Mary J. Blige’s My Life, nor is there much discussion of Hailey, though he is mentioned. (An associate of Blige’s recalls Hailey physically attacking Blige at one point. The doc replays footage from a British talk show in which Blige was ambushed with a clip from an earlier show in which Hailey had announced he was not engaged to Blige, despite having given her a ring. It’s infuriatingly callous on the part of both Hailey and the hosts who gotcha’ed Blige on camera, but all accounts considered, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Like the album itself, Mary J. Blige’s My Life prefers general survey over specificity, but what works well in art does not in documentary. The movie rehashes the story of Blige’s ascent to fame, which rescued her from what she describes as the “violent environment” in which she grew up, Yonkers’s Schlobohm housing projects. The use of music in the film’s early moments is effective: an a capella version of “My Life” plays over archival footage of kids in the hood, and then we see footage of Roy Ayers performing “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” which is heavily sampled on “My Life.” The movie sharply builds the song up by layers. Soon after, we hear a snatch of Betty Wright’s “Cleanup Woman,” the foundational track for the hip hop remix of Blige’s early hit “Real Love.”

Mary J. Blige’s My Life does an adequate job of situating Blige’s position within soul music, as it evolved in the ‘90s—due in no small part to her revolutionary decision to sing over hip hop beats. However, it doesn’t orient Blige as the outlier she truly was—when her debut What’s the 411? arrived in 1992, vocal virtuosity was all the rage in pop and R&B. Multi-part harmonies were de rigueur, radio made room for tracks that were entirely a capella. Blige arrived with not much range to speak of and pitchy tendencies. Nonetheless, her soul shone through (and her songs were easy to sing), which made her something of a people’s diva. “Raspy, gutter, ghetto tone, pain…like just everything that was just going on because there was a lot of pain in the street,” is how her collaborator/mentor Sean Combs describes Blige’s aesthetic in the doc. Her “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” title wasn’t something the people gave her; it was marketing that accompanied her first album. It stuck because no one could argue with it.

The doc is not entirely devoid of context and interesting tidbits emerge—Misa Hylton, Combs’s ex, recalls having to design Blige’s “ghetto fabulous” looks because major design houses wouldn’t work with someone as unknown as Blige, especially because she was a Black artist. There’s some footage of Blige recording in the studio, and interviews with Chucky Thompson (the album’s primary producer) as well as songwriting collaborator Big Bub, but there’s little sense of what the actual process of putting together the album was like. Why is “Mary’s Joint” called “Mary’s Joint?” What was it like to record an orchestra, as they did for Blige’s cover of Rose Royce’s “I’m Goin’ Down?” What gave them the audacity to allow 16 full bars of slap-bass-based funk (courtesy of a Curtis Mayfield sample) go by without so much as a breath from Blige on the first single, “Be Happy?” Why didn’t the track that Blige described as her favorite from the My Life sessions, “Everyday It Rains,” make the final cut? Mary J. Blige’s My Life averts its gaze from even the most obvious specificity: the nuts and bolts of the actual album it’s exploring.

Instead, we get a lot of testimonials from people, primarily Black women, on what the album meant to them. They are also somewhat vague, albeit heartfelt. Fans at listening sessions and meet and greets declare how My Life saved them. “She made it OK for people to say it’s all right to be me,” proclaims actor Taraji P. Henson. In an extremely no-shit moment late into the doc, Tyler Perry declares that Blige’s gut “was born out of trauma.”

Even if the film fails to delve into it, Blige’s trauma is as central to Mary J. Blige’s My Life as Blige’s artistry. Reflecting on growing up in Yonkers as the daughter of a single mom whose father abandoned her and her family, Blige says in an interview recorded for the doc: “My life is not in the sunshine. My life is hell. My life is me not being able to get things out of my head that happened to me, not being able to get being molested out of my head, from childhood, from being 5 years old. Other things that happened that I will not discuss.”

Here, Blige tells us exactly how much—or how little—we can expect to learn about her. At least she’s honest.

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