With a career spanning three decades, thirteen studio albums and a wealth of awards,  Mary J. Blige is one of the undisputed first ladies of Hip Hop and RnB. In 1994, after exploding onto the scene in 1991 with What’s The 411, Blige followed up with My Life. A trailblazing album that seemed to lay bare Bilge’s soul. Now, for the 25th anniversary of the album’s release, Amazon Prime releases Mary J. Blige’s My Life, an emotional documentary, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth, that sees Blige and other famous faces revisit the demons that inspired the record, and celebrate her journey to success.

Blige describes much of her life as being defined by sunshine. Mostly by the lack thereof. Growing up in the Schlobohm housing projects in Yonkers, New York, Blige grew up hardened by her surroundings, witnessing abuse, particularly against women, and relied on drinking from a young age to stem the pain. She recounts the moment she heard the sultry sounds of Roy Ayers 1976 hit Everybody Loves The Sunshine. That moment changed Blige. Against her better judgement, she dared to let herself dream of a life lived in the light – free of the turmoil that existed both externally and internally. 

The dominant narrative Roth highlights is Blige’s connection to her fans. While her music is popular with people of all ages and backgrounds, her resonance with Black women, in particular, is undeniable. Footage from meet and greets illustrates the reverence of her fans as each woman vividly recalls when they first saw Blige and how much it meant to see someone whose life experience seemed to mirror their own. This affinity is contextualised by further examination of the music industry at the time Blige entered. The perceived marketability of black female artists revolved around being more soft and soulful, yet Blige was anything but. An around-the-way girl who had seen struggle, who had had to fight, and who was unapologetically Black; this authenticity had an impact on both the fashion and the sound of Hip Hop and R&B itself. As young women of colour who were shunned by most fashion houses, famed stylist Misa Hylton describes creating custom looks for Blige. Iconic pieces from bright biker jackets to the caps and baggy jeans that characterised the Real Love video, Blige became one of the key figures to pioneer the ‘ghetto fabulous’ aesthetic. This fusion of roughness with her smooth vocals kick-started the popularity of rap songs accompanied by R&B sounds – a staple in many chart topping hits today. 

Much of the documentary is a meditation on pain and self belief. We hear extensively from the late legendary music executive Andre Harrell, founder of Uptown Records, who first discovered Blige, as well as Sean “Diddy” Combs who helped to develop her talent. Describing Blige’s tone as “raspy” and “ghetto gutter”, a raw, unfiltered sound that reflected the agony of project life that needed to be heard. Blige herself describes My Life as “a cry for help” as she found herself drastically at odds with the superstar people saw her as and the desperately unhappy woman she knew herself to be. 

Despite the strength of the documentary being in detailing the emotions surrounding the My Life album, this also causes Roth to falter, as with only an 82 minute runtime, there is little time for more than a surface level exploration of the tracks that make up such an incredible album. Producers Chucky Thompson and Big Bub give great insight into the creation process and their influences, and Roth attempts to close out with commentary on the penultimate track, the classic Be Happy, however, die hard fans may be left wanting. 

Overall, Mary J. Blige’s My Life is a powerful examination and celebration of a groundbreaking album that bravely acknowledges the sorrows that served as its fuel. Yet such an important and inspirational story deserves much more time, if not to also mention the amazing trajectory Blige’s career has taken since. Despite this, Roth succeeds in illustrating Blige as a vessel for human emotion with a cry that speaks the truth of so many marginalised voices. A real treat for fans and an informative account for the less familiar, we can only hope that it’s not too long before we’re invited back to honour Mary once more. 

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Amazon Studios will release MARY J. BLIGE’S MY LIFE on Prime Video June 25th, 2021