As soul and hip-hop began to cross-pollinate in the '90s, perhaps no artist was better at bridging the gap between genres than Mary J. Blige. Born in Yonkers, NY, Blige endured a difficult and adolescence marred by substance abuse to emerge as one of the decade's enduring stars.
Nearly 30 years after the release of her 1991 debut What's the 411?, Blige is still going strong as one of the smoothest voices in soul. In 2017, her studio album Strength of a Woman became her 13th Top 10 release. That same year, she earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for both her performance in the drama Mudbound and "Mighty River," her song for the Netflix film's soundtrack.
In honor of her incredible career, here's a look back at five of her biggest chart hits.
"Real Love" (1992)
Blige was signed to Uptown Records off the strength of a cover of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture" she cut in a mall's recording booth. She soon met a producer at the label named Sean "Puffy" Combs, who helped her make the jump from backing vocalist for the label to bona fide solo star as the executive producer of What's the 411? It was the writer/producer team of Cory Rooney and Prince Markie Dee of The Fat Boys who'd put "Real Love," together, though - the song that would become Blige's first-ever Top 10 pop hit and a chart-topper on the R&B survey. (A hip-hop mix on the 12" single featured a guest rap from up-and-coming emcee The Notorious B.I.G., who'd collaborate with Puffy through the rest of his career.)
"I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By" (with Method Man, 1995)
Mary collaborated with Puffy once again on a remix of this single from Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan's solo debut Tical and helped perfect a subgenre of hip-hop/R&B: "thug love." Over an interpolation of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's immortal Motown duet, Meth gets sensitive as Mary delivers powerful riffs. The duo rode the vibe all the way to No. 3 on the pop charts, plus a return trip for Blige to the top of the R&B charts.
"Not Gon' Cry" (1996)
The soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale featured a towering assortment of female R&B talent: Whitney Houston (her first recordings since the blockbuster The Bodyguard), Toni Braxton, Brandy, Aretha Franklin, TLC and Chaka Khan - all produced by the legendary Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. But Mary was able to stand out in the pack with her determined getting-over-the-wrong-guy anthem "Not Gon' Cry." It soared to No. 2 in the U.S. and also earned a Grammy nod for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
"Family Affair" (2001)
Though Mary titled her fifth album No More Drama, the sensuous "Family Affair" coolly flouted that rule with an insistent, synth-string-laden beat produced by hip-hop legend Dr. Dre. This club-ready anthem finally earned Blige her first No. 1 pop hit and inspired millions to get crunk and dismiss all forms of hateration.
"Be Without You" (2005)
For the lead single off 2005's The Breakthrough, Mary brought her by-now signature hip-hop/soul sound back around from empowerment anthems to a simple, deeply-delivered romantic tribute. Supported by a powerful music video co-starring Terrence Howard - on his way to an Oscar nomination for his performance in the film Hustle & Flow - "Be Without You" became another Top 5 pop smash and spent an incredible 15 weeks atop the R&B singles chart.