This summer marks the 20th anniversary of one of R&B music’s landmark albums that forever changed the genre’s sound and influenced recordings made every since. That album is What’s The 411?, the debut album by Yonkers, NY native Mary J. Blige.
1992 shaped itself to be a standout year in American soul music as the genre filled itself with diversity in sound and revolving chart-topping hits. Traditional R&B singers Gerald Levert and Lionel Richie continued their hit streaks with their signature R&B adult-contemporary slow jams while younger rising icons Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men and Vanessa Williams won universal acclaim with long-running hit singles that crossed over multiple formats (R&B, pop, adult contemporary, rhythmic-pop, etc.). Soul music’s younger brother, rap, grew into its own diverse genre which included gangsta rap (Ice Cube and Ice-T), dance-rap (MC Hammer and Heavy D), socially-conscious rap (Public Enemy), alternative rap (House of Pain and Beastie Boys), new school hip-hop (Redman and Naughty By Nature), backpack rap (De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest) and mainstream hip-hop (LL Cool J and Run-DMC). The year’s biggest hitmakers (Mariah Carey, TLC, Michael Jackson and En Vogue) successfully married the musical trends du jour (house music and new jack swing) with soul music that became staples in radio, music video channels and dance clubs all over the world with album sales becoming the best of the year.
With all the aforementioned musical achievements that occurred in 1992, none impacted soul music and the music charts similar to the accomplishments of What’s The 411? and remaining an influence generations later.
411 did the seemingly impossible. It benchmarked a sound labeled as “hip-hop soul” that seamlessly blended the distinct genres of R&B and hip-hop into a production that aimed to get the younger and hipper hip-hop generation gravitate to the emotionally and melodically driven sounds of mature soul music and fans of the mature and sophisticated sounds of R&B music to find pleasure listening to the edgier sounds of hip-hop influenced rhythms.
“You Remind Me,” Blige’s introduction to the world as a new R&B artist, kicked off The 411, with the assistance Dave “Jam” Hall, and climbed to #1 on the R&B charts with a fresh sound that its competition, both hip and traditional, could not match. Blige’s hit with Hall ushered in demands for music reigning pop divas, most notably Mariah Carey and Madonna to capture a similar sound for their future releases. As a result, Carey’s “Dreamlover” (1993) and “Fantasy” (1995) became two of biggest hits logging in more than two months apiece on top of the charts worldwide.
The album’s second single, “Real Love,” quickly became iconic in Blige’s long-running career and modern music. The song’s production was created with an edgier hip-hop sound, under the helm of producers Mark Rooney and Mark Morales, and sampled two instant hip-hop classics (“10% Dis” by MC Lyte and “Top Billin'” by Audio Two), becoming the first mainstream single that sampled rap music, long after the majority of rap music sampling R&B, dance and pop music. Its rise to the top of the R&B charts and crossover appeal to the pop charts in the United States and United Kingdom did not rest on catchy lyrics and production alone. The song’s music video instantly became a cultural moment in urban America when viewers seen Blige donning hip-hop gear popularized by the inner-city male paired with feminine clothing. Remember Blige wearing the baseball cap and jersey with a tennis skirt while wearing hiking boots? Blige was the first female celebrity outside of the rap genre who made baseball caps and jerseys fashionably acceptable and popular for women of color to wear. The trend carried on for years as new acts influenced by Blige, including Missy Elliott, SWV and Adina Howard, sported the feminized masculine apparel. The masterful idea for this cultural moment in Black America and modern fashion came from an unknown record label intern Sean “Puffy” Combs whose keen sense of marketing to urban American cultivated his career as one of the most successful tastemakers and business leaders in entertainment since the 1990’s.
Like “Real Love,” the Hall-produced, and 411‘s third single, “Reminisce” shot to the top of the R&B charts and helped the album reach multi-platinum status by the end of 1992.
As 1992 closed, Blige’s record label, Uptown Records, noticed the album’s success at winning the younger and hipper generation of urban America with the released hip-hop influenced singles and wanted to reach the R&B genre’s core audience with a cover of the Chaka Khan classic “Sweet Thing.” Cover songs chosen as singles have been performed by music artists for decades, but this cover was special at its time. Record label honchos often search for tunes, popular and obscure, for their marquee acts to turn into crossover pop gold (e.g., Whitney Houston’s “All The Man That I Need” and Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”). Blige’s rendition of “Sweet Thing” defied tradition. Becoming another hit for Blige, the tune possessed a soulful sound that was hip enough for the hip-hop generation to groove while the grown folks enjoyed the tune’s melodic feel. Thus, “Thing” became a multi-generational hit which caused Blige’s younger fan base to believe that the song was originally by Blige instead of being recorded by Khan almost 18 years prior.
More singles and their remixes were released from this landmark album, which put pressure on the young ingenue to continue with another impacting follow-up. Blige succeeded with each album release by effortlessly blending the sounds of traditional, mature R&B music with the hipper and youthful sounds of hip-hop. 411 influenced newer artists, hip-hop icons and blockbuster acts from Mariah Carey to Keyshia Cole, Bobby Brown and Usher and LL Cool J to Rick Ross to incorporate the blending sounds of hip-hop and R&B into top-charting radio staples that extended the popularity of the hip-hop soul sub-genre to outlast the shelf-lives of disco, funk, new jack swing, bubble gum pop, doo-wop and many other musical fads of the past.
Hence, What’s The 411? remains as one of the few albums of the past 20 years that stands as one of the most influential and greatest albums of all time by critics of R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres.
Watch “Love No Limit”
Watch “Real Love”