20 Mary Jane (All Night) (1995)
Mary Jane is a reworking of the fantastic 1983 Mary Jane Girls hit, All Night Long. It’s hard to go wrong with source material as good as this, but it’s an extremely classy take: languid vocals, luscious samples of Teddy Pendergrass’ Close the Door, and a killer remix featuring LL Cool J.
19 Love at First Sight (2003)
It fruitfully rekindled the partnership between Blige and Method Man nearly a decade after I’ll Be There for You / You’re All I Need to Get By. Over a harsh, insistent groove, she ponders the mysteries of immediate physical attraction, while he sounds like the last person you’d want to be immediately attracted to: “You find me just ’boutwhere the poontang go.”
18 Deep Down (1999)
Backed by the drama of Bennie and the piano of the Jets, Deep Inside delivers a similar message to Jennifer Lopez’s Jenny from the Block, but Blige’s performance is so strong, the lyrics so candid – “I don’t have many friends… Is it money they see when they look at me? – that it feels like a real baring of the soul.
17 Be Happy (1994)
Blige’s second album, My Life, was confessional and raw, dealing with addiction, abuse and mental health. Its more Curtis Mayfield-like sampling is ostensibly upbeat and dancefloor-focused, but there’s a powerful tension there: the lyrics are, at best, cautiously upbeat; the hook melody is dark and dark.
16 Take Me As I Am (2005)
By the time of The Breakthrough in 2005, Blige had mastered the art of alchemizing her problems into powerful material. Take Me As I Am is both relaxed (the music is based on Lonnie Liston Smith’s Garden of Peace) and steely; the rhythm is harder than one would expect from a ballad, the lyrics provocative.
15 Share My World (1997)
The title track from Blige’s third album – a noticeably lighter affair than its predecessor – features fabulous Rodney Jerkins production in which disco-era syndrums ricochet around bright synths, the mellow vibe disrupted by perceptible pain in Blige’s voice. It’s not so much a love song as a song imploring love.
14 You Remind Me (1991)
The influential “hip-hop soul” hybrid sound of Blige’s debut album, What’s The 411?, in a nutshell. Rhythms taken from an old Biz Markie track, a beautifully controlled yet emotive voice, a nod to old soul in its chorus borrowed from Patrice Rushen: musical traditions rearranged and reconfigured into something new.
13 Love Is All We Need (1997)
A booming and dense Jam & Lewis production, a Nas feature in its imperial phase – its guest verse is genuinely imaginative – a killer hook, Blige on towering form. Even here, delivering a dynamic anthem to lasting romance, there’s a raw power and attitude in her voice that sets her apart.
12 Enough Crying (2006)
Enough Cryin’s video suggests the song is rooted in memories of Blige’s turbulent relationship with Jodeci singer K-Ci. Whatever the inspiration, it’s a fierce, heart-pounding outpouring of anger and bitterness, complete with an appearance from Blige’s rapper alter ego, Brook Lynn: “Shoulda Marc Jacob Fe Fe put me in a bag when you got me.”
11 U + Me (Love Lesson) (2017)
Blige’s albums have become more punctual over the millennium – there was a Christmas collection and collaborations with Disclosure and Sam Smith – but 2017’s Strength of a Woman boasted an unquestioned classic in U+Me, a heartbroken ballad on which the hazy, stoned sound of a summer afternoon only underscored the power of her voice.
10 All I Can Say (1999)
Blige appeared on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’s I Used to Love Him and here Hill returns the favor, writing and producing Mary’s 1999 debut single, a glorious homage to early 70s Stevie Wonder. Beautifully understated until 2min 40sec, where Blige’s multitrack vocals erupt.
9 I Won’t Cry (1996)
A divorce drama set to sluggish beats and subtle psychedelic guitar snippets, Not Gon’ Cry’s lyrics are more despondent than the title suggests – “11 years out of my life / Besides kids, I haven’t nothing to show” – but Blige injects just enough steel to suggest the protagonist will be fine.
8 My Life (1994)
“I grew up with Roy Ayers,” Blige explained after My Life turned Ayers’ Everbody Loves the Sunshine happiness into a dark one, affecting meditation to survive his tough upbringing and struggles with depression. and drug addiction: “Down and down, crying every day.”
7 Alright (2007)
Blige in merry party-start mode, with an opening monologue on the dance floor. Just Fine’s rhythm track was apparently inspired by Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. His sparse but urgent sound and Blige’s exuberance – “No time to mope, are you kidding?” – are both completely irresistible.
6 More Drama (2001)
A visceral, cathartic howl of a song, wrapped in a superb production by Jam & Lewis sampled on the theme of a soap opera. Its climax is breathtaking; his extraordinary rainy reading of the song at Glastonbury in 2015 remains one of the greatest performances in the festival’s history.
5 I Can Love You (1997)
Relegated to the B-side in the UK, the I Can Love You collaboration between Blige and Lil’ Kim – then at the height of its glory – is formidable. The strings swirl and sigh, Blige brings unrequited grief, Lil’ Kim takes a simpler approach to luring the object of his affections away from his relationship.
4 Being Without You (2005)
According to Billboard, Be Without You is the most successful R&B/hip-hop song of all time. It probably depends on how you define “R&B/hip-hop,” but there’s no doubt that it’s a wonderful song: luscious, dramatic, with Blige providing her clear edge. It was a hit in the UK thanks to a pop-house remix.
3 Everything (1997)
Of all Blige’s tracks that openly – but respectfully – plunder soul music’s past for inspiration, Stylistics’ You Are Everything review of Everything is perhaps the most perfectly shot. The production plays on the familiarity of the song while giving Blige the space to make it something of her own.
2 True Love (remix) (1992)
Real Love’s hip-hop remix will always be remembered as the track that introduced the Notorious BIG to the world, but its stunning guest verse shouldn’t overshadow the greatness of the song itself – its sample of Betty’s Clean Up Woman Wright bouncing happily – or Blige’s performance.
1 Family Affair (2001)
On which an artist most associated with exploring grief and adversity and a producer most associated with hip-hop make for one of the greatest pop-R&B bangers of all time. Everything about Family Affair is perfect: Dr Dre’s simple but devastatingly effective production (piano riff, choppy strings, a beat – that’s it); The economical and sober voice of Blige; the fact that each melodic line sounds like a hook. Has pop produced a more striking clarion cry for forgetting your dancefloor abandonment issues than, “You don’t need hateration, holleration in this dancery,” a line that seems to make up three words?